Post Early For Christmas… Again!

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‘Christmas Mail’ (c. 1910-15)

In recent years, we’ve met the world’s most organised dog, a clumsy wartime comic and some of the people of Christmas, Florida (watch out for more from them soon!), who were all united in explaining how to get your cards, presents and letters to Santa in the post in plenty of time for the festivities.

I’ve been a bit rubbish with my Christmas post this year, but I loved these festive mail-related images. The black and white photographs are all American, probably taken in and around the Washington DC area, and the brightly coloured adverts (below) are from wartime Britain again.

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Vintage Cartoon Scares: ‘Skeleton Frolic’ (1937)

On Halloween a few years back, I posted an early Disney cartoon with the title The Skeleton Dance (see below). This 1937 short, although not in Disney’s Silly Symphonies canon (it was released as part of Columbia Studios A Color Rhapsody series of cartoons instead), appears to be very close to a remake in colour, with a number of sequences which are almost identical to the earlier cartoon.

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Creepy Vintage: Gas Mask Replica*

A group of children wearing gas masks, accompanied by nursing staff (December 1917)

I found these images whilst rummaging through a huge number of official and public domain archive photos taken during both World Wars, and they immediately stood out in a flash of weirdness. There is something very creepy about old black and white photos of people wearing gas masks, and these examples are distinctly odd…

The picture above was taken in 1917 and shows a group of (probably) Dutch children during a gas mask drill. This is easily the creepiest of the photos I found, mainly because there’s something so alien about these kids in their protective gear.

Below, you’ll see a 1942 shot of a group of ATS women in the Middle East wearing their gas masks and respirators, posed and staring almost dead-eyed at the camera. I don’t know if it’s just me, but they look like they’re about to gatecrash a very tense scene in a vintage episode of Dr Who (or some other very British sci-fi show) and send me scuttling behind the sofa…

Women soldiers with gas masks - World War Two

*Apologies for the mangled Captain Beefheart reference in the title!

For more Halloween reading (and watching), click here…

Vintage Cricket: The 1900 Olympic Games

Poster advertising the Olympic cricket match between France and England (1900)
Poster advertising the Olympic cricket match between France and Great Britain

This is a poster advertising the only game of Olympic cricket that has ever been played. It happened over two days between France and Great Britain (referred to in this contemporary advert as England) at the 1900 Games in Paris.

It was a slightly odd match in the context of an Olympics which was a bit of a bizarre event in its own right. Held over five months as part of the World’s Fair, the Games almost seemed like an afterthought. So little effort had been put into promoting them that many of the athletes involved genuinely didn’t know they’d competed in them!

The cricket competition was one such. It was also somewhat ramshackle in other ways. For a start, despite being an Olympic match, it was not considered to be an official first class international since both teams fielded twelve players each instead of the regulation eleven, and it only lasted two days.

Then there was the fact that the two sides were not France and Great Britain as we would know them in the modern era – Great Britain were represented by a public school-dominated touring club from the West Country, and the French team were mostly British expats living in Paris.

Whatever happened over those two days, it was always going to be a British victory on French soil it seems…

And it was – Great Britain, who are still technically Olympic champions 119 years later, won by 158 runs with a mere five minutes to spare. Mostly ignored by both the French and British national media, this was in many ways an anonymous triumph.

Four years later, the Olympic cricket competition at the Games in St Louis was cancelled at short notice due to a lack of competitors and facilities. It has never been an Olympic sport since.

Happy 2019!

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Some officers of a Scottish Division on New Year’s Day (c. 1918)

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’ve been feeling thoughtful…

Round about one hundred years ago, this cheerful bunch of Scotsmen (abovenote the kilts!) would have been celebrating what was probably the last Hogmanay of World War One. They seem to have found what looks like a fairly comfortable billet, and, judging from the bottles at their feet, have undoubtedly indulged in a few beers and a chorus or two of Auld Lang Syne.

A century later, and the world is still fighting. And as this year finally draws to a close, I hope more than ever that we can eventually come to terms with the increasingly glaring truth that monetized hatred, bigotry and violence are slowly destroying us and our planet.

But it is also important to remember that kindness costs nothing. Thoughtfulness costs nothing. We need more of both in 2019, all over the world. We’re not broken – not yet – but we have to take all the chances we can still get as individuals, communities, governments to help rather than hinder peace.

There are lessons to be learned from World War One and its aftermath, as well as from the rise of fascism during the interwar years. We still haven’t learned them, and that needs to change. Going down that road should never be a feasible option again, anywhere.

For me, 2018 can do one, it’s been a particularly brutal year on a personal level all round. However, I hope your New Year is happy, bright and peaceful – and, as ever, I send a huge thank you to you all. I say this every year, but it remains true. I couldn’t do this without my readers.

Happy 2019!

A Thoroughly Modern Santa Returns!

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Last Christmas Eve, we contemplated what might happen if Santa had got hold of a motor car in the early days of internal combustion engines (I’m still wondering if poor old unemployed Rudolph would qualify for Jobseekers Allowance, what with him being a reindeer and all).

Hunting for Christmassy stuff this year, I discovered this wonderful cover image from the December 19th 1909 edition of the New-York Tribune. I can just imagine the havoc caused on that Christmas Eve when fly boy Santa took off for his rounds in that precarious plane…

From all this, I can only conclude that Santa is an enthusiastic early adopter of technology – you know the type – he’s gone from a car in 1896 to a plane thirteen years later (and only a mere six years after the first powered flight by the Wright brothers at that).

These days, he’s probably got an iPad, sat nav, and checks his list in the cloud. He’s also annually tracked by the modern satellite technology of NORAD (which is possibly a little worrying if you think about it too much…).

However thoroughly modern Santa has become with his transportation (personally, I’d argue that reindeer are much more reliable that Siri in the long run), he’s still using old school magic tech to physically get down all those chimneys and deliver your presents. It’s hard work being an omnipresent semi-mythical gift-bringer, so I hope you’ve left out some mince pies and a shot of something warming for the poor guy!

And I really hope poor old Rudolph has finally got to put his hooves up…

For much more festive reading, follow the links here.

Merry Christmas!

Please Mr Postman: a Brief History of Christmas Cards

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You’ve probably already had a few at this point in proceedings (this year, I’ve even been sent one with a rather festive zebra on it!), and I can almost guarantee you’ve forgotten somebody when sending yours, because that’s traditional…

Christmas cards. They can be a real pain to get written and sent, but are always nice to receive. We see them as a pleasant age-old festive tradition, but they only came about in their modern form in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Yep. Just like so many other things that seem to have been part of Christmas forever, the sending of Christmas cards was popularised by those Victorians. You can see a reproduction of the first commercially available card above (and you can see more Victorian and Edwardian cards in the slideshow below).

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This first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882) in 1843. Clearly a shrewd man, he had previously been involved in the introduction of the hugely successful Penny Post in 1840 and later organised the Great Exhibition of 1851, plus he was the first Director of London’s Victoria & Albert museum in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Sir Henry commissioned the well-known artist John Calcott-Horsely (1817-1903) to design the card – and a thousand copies were produced, each hand-coloured. Once Cole had written and sent his share of the cards, the rest were put up for sale for a shilling apiece via an advert in The Athenaeum:

Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.

Showing a multi-generational family lifting a toast to the recipient and bookended by scenes of Christmas charity, the design of the card contained a very Victorian message of philanthropy, which we can also see in other such near-contemporary examples as the Christmas Books of Charles Dickens.

However, the image of a family drinking wine depicted on this card caused some controversy among the more outspoken and influential members of the Temperance Movement in Britain, who felt very strongly that the card promoted drunkenness!

Cole’s Christmas card was an immediate success, and the demand was such that a second printing had to be produced very quickly. In total, more than two thousand copies were printed and sold that Christmas – the Christmas card had, as it were, arrived.

You can see from the slideshow that many nineteenth and early twentieth century Christmas cards didn’t always look all that festive or religious in the sense that we would know it (and anyway, I’d love to know what’s so Christmassy about a ‘Beauty Spot at Bondi’, or a bunch of grumpy kittens perched upon a pipe! Admittedly, the Victorians seemed to love imagery of small and distinctly annoyed moggies – perhaps descendants of the notorious Icelandic Yule Cat?)

However, it’s also interesting to note that religious and secular seasonal themes were combined in some Christmas card art from very early on. Cards featuring angels carrying Christmas trees or guiding Father Christmas on his deliveries are yet another example of the longstanding jointly Christian/non-Christian nature of the festive celebrations.

A related phenomenon is the Victorian New Year card, which may hark back to historical celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when the upper reaches of society would exchange gifts on January 1st. You can see a few examples of these nineteenth century cards in the slideshow above, all of which depict themes of newness and/or luck in the coming year.

In recent years, such cards seem to have made a return – I have seen numerous examples on sale this Christmas (including – where else? – at the Post Office…). Greetings cards are big business in 21st century Britain, with one in six retailers stocking them. Many people also enjoy making them at home as a hobby, which obviously requires production of the relevent craft supplies (and glue all over your fingers).

Brits buy more greeting cards than any other nation, and raise around £50 million for various charities with the purchase of fundraising Christmas cards every year. You could see that as a nod back to the philanthropic message of Sir Henry Cole’s original, although I’m not sure what he would think about the auction of a rare surviving 1843 card for over £22,000 in 2001…

Cole’s small idea took wings, and now you can instantly send a Christmas card to someone on the other side of the world with just the click of a mouse. So I’m sending this post out as a Christmas card to you all, wherever you are, with love.

For more festive reading, visit the links here

Merry Christmas!

Vintage Cartoon Scares: ‘Felix The Ghostbreaker’ (1923)

Today’s spooky/silly cartoon features one of the most popular (and still recognisable) animated characters of the silent film era – Felix the Cat. First introduced to the big screen in the immediate aftermath of World War One, and possibly based on an earlier animated version of Charlie Chaplin, this cheeky and slightly surreal black and white cat was an immediate success with critics and the cinema-going public alike.

In this 1923 short, Felix encounters a ghost who is up to no good. Following the spook, he sees it scare an unsuspecting householder and the man’s livestock. The householder calls out the reserves to rescue his property from the ghost, but that doesn’t work – so Felix offers to try to lure the ghost away with a bottle of rum! Once the phantom is off the property, Felix pulls a gun on it and, in a reveal worthy of Scooby Doo, we discover it is really a human rival of the householder who is trying to scare him into selling his home…

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Vintage Cartoon Scares: ‘Le Squelette Joyeux’ (1897-8)

This is the first in a slightly belated series of spooky (and slightly silly) seasonal posts. All Hallows Eve may have come and gone, but the clocks have gone back and the nights are drawing in. The end of the year is not far away, which makes this the perfect time to be telling tales of ghostly apparitions around the fire – indeed, Christmas ghost stories are a genre unto themselves.

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