An Illustrated Victorian Christmas

One of the most rewarding and fun aspects of making a webcomic out of vintage graphics is constantly discovering beautiful and engaging illustrations that have not been widely shared or seen for over 100 years. In order to make a simple comic I often have to browse through hundreds, if not thousands, of vintage images looking for just the right character or expression needed for a particular strip. I have spent many hours simply paging through old Life and Punch magazines being astounded at how a few black lines on a piece of paper can convey a sense of place and emotion.

Victorian Department Store Christmas decorations

These old books that I page through are considered to be “primary sources” of the Victorian time period because they were created during that time. Primary sources are great because they allow us to see and experience exactly the same things as the people from a particular past time period.

When I page through old books and magazines I’m often struck by how “modern” they feel in tone even though the fashion and style may be a bit archaic. I think most people have a tendency to break all of history into two groups: “Us” defined as those of us living in the present and “Them” defined as everyone else who ever lived in the past. We also tend to think of all those past people as being inherently different and foreign to us, but that’s really not the case at all.

The more of these primary sourced documents I see, the more I realize that humans really don’t change that much over time. People of the past often felt cold and hungry, grew tired and cranky, had dreams and aspirations, fell in love, had daily problems, made silly dad jokes and surely got annoyed with one another. We regularly forget that are ancestors were really just like us, just with a few less electronic gadgets. That’s generally true of any time period you examine, and it is part of what makes history so intriguing.

So I was particularly delighted when I stumbled across this comic illustration of the Victorian Christmas season in an 1890 issue of Life magazine. It’s by an American illustrator named Frank P.W. “Chip” Bellew. His father, Frank Bellew, was also a famous illustrator and people said young Frank was a “chip off the old block” so the son began signing his artwork with the name Chip. Here’s the full illustration:

Click for full image

You might notice that, yes, it looks like it’s something that came from the late 1800’s because everyone is wearing suits, top hats and dresses. But as you begin to pour over the image you quickly notice all the little details and even cliches that are still true and familiar today. Here are some of the wonderful details I noticed about this image:

Christmas Decorations: Over 100 years later we instantly recognize this as a department store during Christmastime. We recognize the columns draped with garland, the holiday banners, the Christmas tree, the large Santa Claus and even the special holiday advertisements as being part of the Christmas tradition.

Retail Mayhem: We still recognize this as a department store because there are crowds of customers bustling back and forth, there’s still a sales counter, and there are the familiar frazzled, berated, thoroughly demoralized retail employees. This scene could easily be depicting any modern store on a Black Friday.

Rampant Consumerism: We like to think that our materialist tendencies around the holidays are a relatively modern phenomenon and everyone tends to romanticize Victorian Christmases as fairy tale scenes centered on friends and family. This illustration shows us the real Christmas season. It was funny to the people of 1890 because it was true, and it’s no less true today. The Christmas season was messy and chaotic and entirely centered around buying stuff… just like it is today. Even the variety of products presented in the store are all pretty familiar Christmas presents: books, socks, toys, knick-knacks, home decorations, gloves and numerous boxes and packages of every shape and size.

Victorian woman convincing husband to buy more.

People are People: A lot of the people in this illustration are what we’d consider caricatures but they could also be seen as simple truths about human nature. You have the well-dressed older gentleman flirting with the pretty sales girl. You have the wife trying to convince her poor husband to buy one more thing. You have the policeman catching the old lady shoplifting while being pick pocketed himself. You have the questionable sale price where an item is reduced by a single penny. You have the rambunctious child causing trouble and you have the harried sales staff. Every stereotype in this illustration from 1890 is still a stereotype today.

There are, of course, a few things that are fascinating simply because they are unfamiliar to us. Here are two quick examples:

Dress: The way people are dressed for a frantic day of shopping has obviously changed a great deal since 1890. We no longer wear suits and top hats or done our frilliest dress to saunter down to the department store, but the entire idea of a retail culture was still relatively new to the people of 1890.

Technology: It took me a moment to initially recognize this, but the store is rigged with a pulley system with a series of hanging baskets attached. Google tells me they’re called cash carrier or cash railway systems and they were found in a lot of large department stores as the retail world boomed. They helped move packages and money quickly around the store and allowed retail employees to avoid the crowds on the ground. You’ll even see a package falling out of one of the overhead baskets, so one can imagine that was not an unseen occurrence.

This one simple illustration showed us what life was really like during Christmastime in the late 19th century, gave us a good laugh or two about the absurdities of “modern” life, and we taught us a bit amount some of the emerging technologies in late 19th century retail establishments.

Those are some pretty amazing accomplishments for a simple magazine drawing that’s over 100 years old.

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