Vintage Holiday Cards from the Digital Archive

December 15, 2017 | David

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Postcard with inset images of a postman and a woman depositing a letter and a globe with the date
Card from 1885, reading "Toronto P.O. [Post Office] Employee's Annual Greeting To Their Friends Everywhere. / Compliments of the Season."

Toronto Public Library's amazing Digital Archive has a large collection of holiday greeting cards. Many of these bits of ephemera (items that are not usually kept for a long time) are over 100 years old. Some are sweet. Some are silly. Some are serious. Thanks largely to the library's Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, these bits of history escaped the ephemeral fate of most greeting cards.

A general history of holiday cards can be read in Christmas, Inc.: A Brief History of the Holiday CardHere are some highlights from that article:

  • Writing New Year's greetings has happened for hundreds of years.
  • Holiday cards in English appeared in the mid-1800s.
  • Sending holiday cards grew in popularity with the decline of family farms, when relatives spread out geographically.
  • The New York Public Library staged a holiday card exhibit in 1930.
  • There has been concern about the commercialism of card buying for many decades.


And now... here are just a few of the holiday cards from the library's Digital Archive: 


More than Meets the Eye: Specialty Cards


On the left is the closed card showing the outside of the building  on the right is the same card opened to reveal a colourful interior the same building

Pop-up card from 1900 with an illustration of the Crystal Palace (shown closed on the left and opened on the right to reveal a pop-up scene). The card reads "A merry Christmas & happy new year".


Card shaped like treasure chest  printed in colours and gilt

Christmas card from 1900 with a small compartment for a bill or large coin, reading "To help to fill your treasure box with best Christmas wishes"


Girl using a camera to take a picture of two birds in a studio type room

Transparency card from 1910. When held up to the light, it reveals Santa holding a doll. Verse in the middle reads "To wish you a bright and happy Christmas." Verse on bottom of card reads "Look pleasant please and watch me closely / Now hold the postcard to the light / You'll find my photo has developed / And Father Christmas comes in sight." On side of card, it reads "Transparency card. Hold up to the light."


Two images  one open and one closed of a a flowery pond with a swan

Two images of the same 1880 card (closed left, opened right). The card reads "Greeting / My hope and heart is with thee! / Tennyson / For a very bright Christmas" / Tis Christmastime! Therefore warm greetings take, And every kindly wish, for auld acquaintance' sake From 'Grandma S.'"


Musical Merriment


A female toy is singing the notes in German that read Happy New Year to a male toy who is playing a horn

German postcard from 1910. The message reads "Gluckliches Neu Jahr", which translates to "Happy New Year". 


Two images  one of the front of a card that shows children  in the snow and the beginning of a song Going to the Party with its musical score

Front and back of postcard from 1880, with the score and lyrics of "Going to the Party." The top of the front card reads "A merry Christmas". 


Postcard of a religious verse

Greeting card from 1910. Verse on a scroll, surrounded by holly and ivy, reads: "Calm on the listening ear of night come heaven's melodious strains, Where wild Judea stretches far her silver-mantled plains. Celestial choirs from courts above shed sacred glories there: and angels with their sparkling lyres, make music on the air."


Children and the Holidays


Cartoon boy and girl holding hands; Jan 1 on a calendar in the top left corner a small cherub offering an umbrella in the bottom right

Card from 1914, reading "Jan. 1 / Best New Year Wishes"


A young girl in a fancy outfit holds a doll against a blank background

Christmas card from 1880, reading "With the season's compliments"


Three girls sitting on stools holding up chalk boards with a holiday message written on it

Card from 1880, reading "A merry xmas"


A young girl with a mug stands by a chair and two cats  one of them is drinking from a plate

Christmas card from 1910, reading "Wishing you a very merry Christmas / Gertrude / Only taught by love to love, / Seems childhood's natural task, / Affection, gentleness and hope, / Are all its brief years ask!"


A young boy hands a letter to Santa who has a full bag of toys on his back

Christmas card from 1907, reading "Best wishes for a happy Christmas"


Two children adorn a goat with a wreath in the inset image  bordered by a decorative pattern

Card from 1875, reading "A very merry Christmas"


Eight children pulling a log on a cart with rope  one of the girls carries a shovel

Card from 1900, reading "Wishing you a very happy year"


A boy dressed in winter clothes carries a shovel in the snow

Card from 1880, reading "A Happy Christmas"


On the left is the front of a postcard with a girl in a snowy setting  on the right is the back of that postcard with an inscription on it

Christmas card from 1878, on the left is the front image that reads "A merry Christmas and a happy New Year." On the right is the back of the same postcard, reading "Dearest Lettie with fond love and Xmas wishes. 1878."


Two children in formal clothing stand on a snowy street

Card from 1870, reading "Wintry but seasonable. / A merrie Xmas to you all."


A decorative frame with an inset painting of a girl feeding a deer in the snow

Card from 1900, reading "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" 


'Tis the Season in Toronto


An illustration of a boy and a girl standing by a pond

Card from 1900, advertising H. Haag, a Toronto candy shop. It reads "I want Haag's Candies for Christmas. / They are pure, they won't make me sick. / Compliments of the season, / H. Haag, / Baker and confectioner, - 714 Yonge Street".


Painting of seagull riding a wave

A card from 1880 that advertises a Toronto store, reading "A merry Christmas to you & yours / Compliments of / J. Blizard & Co. / Toys and games / 49 King St. West / Toronto"


Black and white images of postcards from a catalogue  along with a small map showing the store's location

A page from a 1931 catalogue of Christmas cards by Tally Ho! Art Shops in Toronto. The store encouraged you to buy their basic black and white postcards and then colour them in and sell for a profit.


 Illustration of maple leaves in an gold frame and a gold beaver in the bottom left

 Card from 1919, reading "Toronto / With all good wishes / for Christmas"


A boy and Santa holding Mail and Empire newspapers on the street in front of a street car

Card from 1890, from former Toronto-based newspaper Mail and Empire, reading "A merry Christmas / Two early birds"


Card with two circular inset images  one of a house and one of a mailman bringing mail to a woman

Postcard from 1914 of 172 Indian Road in Toronto. At the top it reads "Christmas Greetings". In the bottom left it reads "This / Christmas day / be bright and / gay / with heaps of / fun and toys". In the bottom right it reads "And / may the coming / year be filled / with / happiness / and joys".


Wartime Good Wishes


Front and inside of postcard with red drawings and verse

Card from 1916. Front reads "No. 2 Canadian General Hospital / Christmas 1916. / Normandy 1915 1916 1917".  The second page reads "From the high cliffs of Normandy, / To those at Home, / This little Christmas Greeting goes / Full of Faith and hope / That the New Year will bring / 'Peace on Earth'" It's signed "Best wishes for xmas & the new year / from Percy R. Brewer [?]"


All text postcard that reads Christmas day 1918  menu Canadian troops in England breakfast rolled oats  scrambled eggs and bacon  bread  butter  coffee  dinner pea soup  roast turkey and dressing  apple sauce  cabbage  potatoes

Card from 1918


A postcard mostly of text with the stamps representing different military groups in the four corners

Canadian postcard from 1912, reading "Lieut-Col. Wellington Wallace commanding 14th Infantry Brigade and staff extends to you all the compliments of the season and a happy new year, 1912-1913." The address on the bottom is "120 Spadina Road, Toronto".



Odds and Ends: Jokes, Peculiarities and More


Boy with an excited expression opens door to see presents underneath a Christmas tree

Card from 1908, reading "Don't you remember when you felt like this on Christmas morning?


Santa Claus asleep on a park bench  with a bag of toys and appears to be the victim of some prank - his feet are tied to the bench. A squirrel is eating nuts in front.

1911 card belonging to Toronto family. It seems to show a prank on Santa, who has a sign reading "Keep of the grass." The card reads "Merry Christmas and good morning."


Uncle Sam in a blue coat and hat ornamented with white stars  holly leaves and other seasonal flourishes

Card from 1911, reading "A merry Christmas"


A mother and two children one with an axe standing in front of a tree the black and white photo his been coloured in green in certain places like the dresses and tree

Studio photograph with some hand-colouring, embellishments on dresses. Christmas greeting is in Russian. Inscription date is 1912. Addressed to Mrs. R. Sinclair, 373 Roncesvalles Ave., Toronto.


Five children playing in the snow  one of them is eyeing a small bird with a crossbow

Card from 1900, reading "Fate send you fatter game than this / A steady aim and ne'er a miss / A merry Christmas"


Square greeting card with the message inscribed on the border and an image of a solemn Cinderella sitting by a fire

Card from 1885, reading "Christmas Greeting / May good luck be in store for you when least expected, - like Cinderella"


Four cats hiss on top of a snowy roof while a man peeks out from the window

Card from 1880, reading "In silvery accents, whispering low – A happy, happy Christmastide!"



Want to learn more? Or maybe you're feeling crafty? Check out these books from the Toronto Public Libary:


Book cover showing a holiday card

Season's Greetings: Handmade Holiday Cards from 20th-Century Artists (2012)


Book cover showing craft tools and a finished homemade card

Greeting Cards (2007)


Book cover showing completed greeting cards

The Big Book of Greeting Cards: Over 40 Step-by-Step Projects (2002)



Let us know in the comments if you keep greeting cards from friends and family -- and if you don't, how long do you wait until you recycle them?