The History of Halloween and Its Postcards

All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, Halloween – no matter what version of the holiday you celebrate, the end of the harvest season and the coming of a darker, colder season is heralded at the end of October.

You can see the progression of the holiday through vintage Halloween postcards, a fascinating look at what the holiday was like back then.

Halloween started with the Celtic festival Samhain, where villagers built a bonfire and donned masks to confuse any spirits at the end of the harvest season.

This turned into All Souls’ Day in the 12th century, a day to pray for the dead.

In the Victorian Era the holiday turned into a fun, less creepy holiday focused more on romance.

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Postcards from this time period reflect these themes; many Victorian Halloween postcards show couples embracing, surrounded by pumpkins on a moonlit night. A legend prevalent at the time said that a young woman could find the name of her true love on Halloween night. This included such rituals as eating an apple while looking in a mirror by candlelight, or peeling an apple in one continuous peel and seeing what letter (the alleged first letter of a lover’s name) the peels formed. Another, more questionable ritual suggests going down a staircase at midnight while holding a mirror that would show her future husband. (We don’t recommend this unless your future husband is standing at the bottom waiting to catch you when you inevitably trip and fall down said staircase.)

Some vintage Halloween postcards come across as rather odd. This one, for instance, shows uprooted kale:



This ritual meant wearing a blindfold and pulling up kale. The shape of the kale stalk suggested the look of a future spouse, and the taste suggested their temperament.

So if you come across vintage postcards with stalks of kale, you’ll be at least slightly less confused than before.

What are the strangest Halloween postcards you’ve seen?

Check out this link for more strange vintage Halloween postcards.


You’d Be Surprised What Human Hair Can Make

Get this: Victorians didn’t just throw their hair away after brushing it out like we do today. They kept it as a household material.

Women kept tools called “hair receivers” on their vanity and put the extra hair that caught on their brush inside them. These pieces have small holes in the middle of the lid to put the hair in, and when they’re full the lid can be taken off. Many have beautiful patterns on them and are made of materials like glass and porcelain. These were used up through the 1950s.

Hair Receiver

From a 1900s catalogue.


Waste not, want not, right?

They put this extra hair to use for a variety of things. Big, tall hair was very popular at the time, and women put rats of hair into small hairnets to add major volume. It was like the BumpIt of the Victorian era.



Women also stuffed the hair into pincushions and pillows.

We’ve also written about Victorian mourning jewelry, which often kept locks of hair as keepsakes.

But one of the most unusual uses for hair was hair art. Women would put together art from locks of hair of their family members, creating a wreath that symbolized family ties. Other hair wreaths would mourn a lost loved one, and some art or albums even kept locks of friends’ hair in braided patterns.

It seems like an odd practice to us today, but to the Victorians it was a beloved tradition to honor loved ones.

Some people make art out of hair today too, although obviously it’s a rare find.


Ruby Lane

Remembering the Dead: All About Mourning Jewelry

Who knew jewelry could be so macabre?

Once upon a time before photography, people needed a way to remember their deceased family members. So they used what might seem a little odd today: jewelry in which to keep pieces of the dead loved one’s hair.

The practice started as late as the 16th century and lasted through the Victorian Era. Queen Victoria, ever the trendsetter, popularized mourning jewelry after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Black jewelry in general became especially popular at the time.

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This antique mourning locket still has a lock of hair inside.

Mourning rings were the most popular type, but you can also find hair in lockets and other types of jewelry.

Jewelers got creative with hair: locks were not only kept in lockets, but also braided with a cord or ground and mixed with paint to paint a small, detailed picture. No matter the type, each piece of jewelry was inscribed with the name and date of death of the deceased. Some also had morbid epitaphs like “we must submit” and “we’re his last”.

Black enamel was the most common material in mourning jewelry. But other materials also had their own significance: for instance, white enamel meant a girl had died before she was married, and pearls meant the death of a child. Victorians had extra-strict rules for mourning periods, and their jewelry would match each period based on the appropriate color.


A mourning brooch.

When photography became more widely available in the Victorian Era, people started the infinitely creepier practice of post mortem photography. People put their dead loved ones in poses as if they were alive and had photos taken with them to remember them by. You can easily find these by searching online.

Most mourning jewelry you’ll find out there is beautiful, so keep an eye out and you may just be surprised by what you can find.


Historic New England


On (re)Purpose

Why Victorian Calling Cards Are Like Facebook

Ah, the Victorians; so obsessed with politeness that almost every action had its own symbolic meaning. To achieve this almost unworldly level and layer of meaning, Victorians employed the calling card.

The calling card was used for social interactions as a method of leaving a first impression and reminding acquaintances of social visits. People would not see each other face-to-face until receiving a card.

The way it was given was important. How the giver stood and handed over the card, as well as the appearance of the card itself, were all vital details.

The man calling upon the family gave his card to the servant who answered the door, and the servant would put it on a silver tray. If the requested recipient was home, the servant would take the card to them to tell them who was waiting to see them.

Afternoons were reserved for these sorts of visits, with 30 minutes allowed per visit. The hostess would wear an afternoon dress and could often be found writing letters, working with lace or wool, or sketching.

If they weren’t home at the time, the calling card would be left on the tray as a memo of who called. The receiver could either send back a card in request of another visit or decline to send one back as a polite method of saying “we don’t want to ever see your face again.”

Also worth mentioning are carte-de-visites, small portraits, which were all the craze in the 19th century and traded between friends.

Think of it like today’s social media. You can try to ‘friend’ someone on Facebook, and they either accept it and you’re best buddies forever, or they ignore you and you’re left waiting for eternity for a reply that will never come.


Those Victorians really like their hand-flower combination.

Men’s cards only had their names and addresses or organizations they belonged to. Women’s cards were bigger in size but were often just as simple in format. However, there were very intricate calling cards as well, as you can see above.

Special attention was paid to the turning down of card’s corners:

  • The upper right hand corner folded down meant a visit in person.
  • The upper left corner folded down meant a visit to say congratulations.
  • The lower left corner folded down gave condolences.
  • The lower right corner folded down meant goodbye.

The rules of calling card etiquette could go on and on, and they evolved over time.

By the early 20th century the calling-card craze had gone down quite a bit. The Edwardian era still used them, just to a lesser extent, and the practice slowly died away.

Next time you friend request someone on Facebook, just be grateful that the etiquette is a little more straightforward.

What would you want your calling card to look like?

The Symbolism of Flowers

Watch out: If you’re given a red geranium, the gift might not have good intentions.

Flowers, especially in the Victorian era, often have hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) symbolism. Red geraniums just happen to carry an insult: they mean “stupidity”.

But worry not, most popular flowers today have positive messages. And with spring just around the corner, it would be helpful to know these messages.

Floriography, the language of flowers, communicates messages through flower arrangements.

While France hit a floriography phase in the first half of the 19th century, the practice was most common in the Victorian era in Britain, at the time when lack of modesty was frowned upon and subtlety and tact had to go a long way for communication. Victorian men courting women used flowers to say to their beloved what they would not outright say in front of her parents or chaperones.


A vintage advertisement featuring chrysanthemums.

A vintage advertisement featuring chrysanthemums, symbols for optimism or joy.

Flowers can mean more than one thing, depending on the symbol guide you check. But usually it’s not hard to get to the bottom of their meaning.

Want to know what your flowers mean? Here’s a cheat sheet for some of the more common flowers:

Azalea – abundance
Crocus – youth
Daffodil – chivalry
Daisy – innocence
Freesia – spirited
Forget-Me-Not – remember me forever (as if that one wasn’t obvious)
Gardenia – joy
Hydrangea – perseverance
Jasmine – grace and elegance
Lavender – distrust
Lilac – first love
Rhododendron – beware
Pink Rose – friendship
Red Rose – passionate love
White Rose – purity
Yellow Rose – zealous or jealousy
Sunflower – adoration
Violet – faithfulness

Note the less savory symbols, like Lavender’s “distrust”. Other such insults include Amaryllis’s “haughtiness”, Peony’s “anger”, and Yellow Carnation’s “you have disappointed me.”

Flowers have been used as symbolism in art and literature as well. Authors including Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte used flower language in their works, and Pre-Raphaelites commonly used symbolic flowers in their pieces, like in John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia.


More extensive list of flower symbolism


The Tintype: Photo Magic of the 19th Century

Tintypes were pretty great inventions.

Today we have our instant photos; we can take a snapshot and immediately see the photo on screen.

In the 19th century this would have seemed like some crazy science fiction written by Jules Verne.

The 19th century equivalent of photo magic was the tintype.

There’s actually no tin in the tintype, despite its name.


A tintype of a man with a great goatee.

Tintypes could be developed completely in a matter of minutes and then handed to the customer, making photography available to everyone for the first time. These portraits started in formal settings and photographic studios, but later photographers would sell them at fairs or carnivals, or at sidewalk sales. They were most popular between 1860-1870.

Adding an element of danger, the chemical process required to develop a tintype included hazardous chemicals.

To lighten up the tintype as much as possible, the developer had to use the chemical potassium cyanide, a powerful and deadly poison. Thankfully, unless the chemical was ingested, it wouldn’t do any harm.


A great tintype of an older woman.

The tintype had the ability to capture a much wider variety of subjects and locations than ever before. It even caught moments of the Civil War and the Wild West.

Tintypes come in a variety of packaging. Some came in quality leather cases, others in thin cards with a window cut out for the photo, and carnival photos with festive poses came in colorful cases.

If you find yourself buying a tintype, it’s important to know to NOT clean its surface, which can be very delicate. See here for more tintype cleaning information. This list is also great for finding the rough date your tintype was made. And if you’re itching to get your own, find some great tintypes here.

Do you own any tintypes? Let us know in the comments!

Hidden Symbolism in Victorian Jewelry

No one loves symbolism like the Victorians loved symbolism.



In an age of complex manners and rules, Victorians used symbolism to speak a secret language.

Especially when it came to courting, jewelry held its own hidden messages. Men went through complicated processes to court women, closely guarded by their parents and chaperones, and jewelry conveyed more heartfelt messages than he was able to communicate in person.

Queen Victoria, the fashionable queen with more than a little influence on Victorian style, received an engagement ring from Prince Albert in the form of a snake, the symbol of eternity.


The star symbolizes spirit and guidance in this Victorian star, moon, diamond and pearl necklace.

Sometimes it takes serious contemplation before figuring out the meaning behind a piece of Victorian jewelry.

There are plenty of complex symbols. Jewelry with different types of stones spell out a message as an acronym of the stones’ first letters. For instance, if a ring has a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, another ruby, and a diamond, it spells out “REGARD”. This is one of the most common words in acronym jewelry, and carries a meaning like “with my regards” or “I highly regard you”.

And that’s just the start of the hidden meanings. Symbols abound in Victorian pieces. For instance, if a couple was on their honeymoon, the bride would wear a pin with a crescent moon and flowers. The flowers represented the nectar, or “honey” part of the word “honeymoon”.

290px-Victorian_WomanSome other symbols in Victorian jewelry:
Pearls – Tears
Forget-Me-Nots – Remembrance
Doves – Domesticity
Crowned Heart – Love Triumphant
Butterfly – Soul
Clasped Hands – Friendship, Lasting Love

Do you have any jewelry with hidden symbols? Go here for a comprehensive list of symbol meaning in jewelry, and tell us if you find anything!

A Brief History of the Christmas Card

If you celebrate Christmas (or maybe even if you don’t) it’s a beloved tradition to give & receive Christmas cards during this festive time of year.

(Including, for the procrastinators out there, after Christmas. It’s the thought that counts, right?)

But the practice had to start somewhere. So when did this fun and nostalgic Christmas tradition begin?

The first known occurrence was in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole commissioned cards illustrated by John Callcott Horsley. The card shows a family giving a toast, with illustrations of charitable actions on the edges. They were sold for a shilling each.

Some were upset at the content of the card – it shows a child being given a glass of wine.

Also in the 1840s, “official” Christmas cards began to be issued, often showing images of royalty such as Queen Victoria.

Most early Christmas cards were not given to the kind of romantic winter image we see today, but instead leaned toward flowers and cheerful spring-like designs, looking forward to upcoming warmer weather.

A festive, embossed Christmas postcard showing a green-dressed Santa surrounded by poinsettias.

A festive, embossed Christmas postcard showing a green-dressed Santa surrounded by poinsettias.

Some designs were not quite so cheerful, however. “Some early Christmas card imagery, featured in Grossman’s book “Christmas Curiosities” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2008), may look more bizarre to modern eyes: Krampus* dragging bad children to the underworld, pine trees kissing, Santa lighting a cigar off a Christmas tree, anthropomorphic mice decorating trees and cats tossing snowballs. OK, people still love pictures of animals acting like humans, but how does one explain the Christmas cards that show a dead bird lying on its back with the words “May yours be a joyful Christmas” above?” (via Megan Gannon on Live Science)

The different sensibilities of the time don’t translate so well today. Here’s a tip, kids: just because the Victorians did it doesn’t mean you should send your dear old grandma a picture of a dead bird.

In 1870, the start of the One Penny Post allowed almost anyone to send cards, making the business even more successful.

A cute, vintage postcard showing a girl in a red dress with her toy horse, giving Christmas greetings.

A cute, vintage postcard showing a girl in a red dress with her toy horse, giving Christmas greetings.

In 1873 a lithograph firm began selling Christmas cards in England, which expanded to the U.S. the next year. One of the creators, Louis Prang, was called the “father of the American Christmas card.” His designs were so popular that they spawned cheap knockoffs that eventually drove him from business.

Today, 45% of all cards sent are Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole really knew what he was doing.

Many stationary businesses made Christmas cards from then on, each year reflecting the trends of the times with their images and designs. For instance, in the early 20th century each of the World Wars brought patriotic card themes, while the 1950s brought cartoon illustrations. Nostalgic images have since continued to rise, leading to the popular Victorian Christmas image we often see today.

Today, some use e-cards to send their holiday well-wishes, but that does not stop the physical Christmas card business from thriving. And many would prefer it that way, considering the lukewarm receptions to digital cards. There are only so many cutesy winter animations that one can sit through before going mad.

But no matter the medium, the Christmas card has become an embedded tradition within our culture, a tradition that sends joyful greetings and well-wishing thoughts around this festive time of year.

*Krampus is known as the “holiday devil” in Alpine folklore, a creature opposite of Santa Claus who punishes bad children. Good luck sleeping tonight.

Beatrix Potter, Beloved Children’s Author

The beloved children’s book The Tale of Peter Rabbit is well-known the world over, and has been ever since its publication in 1902. Its universal themes still apply today and charm both children and adults in its quaint tales of country life.

Author Beatrix Potter had an inspiring life for a woman born in the Victorian era. She developed her own hobbies enough to gain an independent living from them.

Beatrix holding her pet dog.

Beatrix holding her pet dog.

It all starts with Peter Rabbit’s origin. At fourteen years old, Beatrix bought a rabbit named Benjamin Bouncer. Three years later when Benjamin died, she bought another rabbit and named it Peter. In the same year, Beatrix wrote a letter to her late governess’s son Noel, telling an illustrated tale of Peter Rabbit for the first time.

At age thirty-five Beatrix privately published The Tale of Peter Rabbit for her family and friends. Beatrix had also sent the manuscript to six publishers, but each of them rejected her. However, the London firm of Frederick Warne & Co. finally accepted the manuscript and published it in 1902. It was instantly popular and sparked a total of twenty-three “little Tales”, all published by Warne publishing.

A portrait of Beatrix

A portrait of Beatrix

Beatrix was a clever businesswoman and used her stories to market products to the public. As early as 1903 she made and patented a Peter Rabbit doll, followed by other merchandise such as painting books, board games, wallpaper, figurines, baby blankets and china tea sets. From all this, Beatrix earned an independent income as well as profits from her publisher.

In 1905, Beatrix and Norman Warne, one of the brothers of the publishing house who had worked with Beatrix on her stories, got engaged against her parents’ wishes. However, it was not to be; Warne died of leukemia a month after his proposal. Beatrix threw herself into her work as a distraction.

Tale_of_peter_rabbit_12When she earned enough money from her books and received a legacy from an aunt, Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm in 1905, a property in the tiny village the Lake District in England. Beatrix’s interest in conservation first developed during her visit to the Lake District when she was sixteen and the local vicar impressed his views of the need for conservation on young Beatrix.

Esthwaite Water, which Beatrix called her “favorite lake” in England went for sale on eBay this year for 300,000 pounds. No word on any takers.

Chidlow Pond at Hill Top Farm.

Chidlow Pond at Hill Top Farm.

When Beatrix had earned enough money to buy farmland, love returned to her life. The property dealer, a local man named William Heelis, helped her with acquiring property and her efforts of conservation and they gradually developed feelings for each other. Beatrix’s parents once again opposed the match, but this time she ignored them and married William in October 1913. They remained together until Beatrix’s death in 1943.

Following Beatrix’s wishes, almost all her property at Hill Top was left to the National Trust, and fans of her work can now visit the property and see the settings for so many of her stories. Beatrix was also a huge conservationist and she is credited with preserving the land for what is now the Lake District National Park.

A Brief History of the Cameo

The cameo is one of the most popular pieces of jewelry in history. But what exactly is a cameo, and how did it come to be so popular?

The history of the cameo goes way back. Cameos owe their origins to petroglyphs, figures carved into rock that recorded events and gave information as far back as 15,000 BC.

An example of an intaglio piece, showing Neptune and Amphitrite riding a sea horse.

An example of an intaglio piece, showing Neptune and Amphitrite riding a sea horse.

The intaglio, the reverse of a cameo in which the piece is carved below the surface, actually came before the cameo, when the intaglio was used in ancient times to seal papers or mark property.

There are disagreements on when the first cameo was made, however. Research suggests dates anywhere from six BC to 300 BC.

No matter what the right date, experts agree that the first cameos were made in Alexandria, Egypt, where people used them to convey a moral or declare a statement of faith or loyalty. Some of the earliest cameos were made of hard stones like agate and sardonyx (a stone like onyx, but with shades of red instead of black) before the use of more modern materials like gems, coral, and shells. People in cultures outside of Egypt soon came to love the cameo, too.

Contrary to what modern readers might expect, women were not the original cameo wearers and only started wearing them as a symbol of status during the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). This is also when the ruins of Pompeii rose in tourism and status-conscious women bought souvenir shell and lava cameos as evidence for their trip.

A charming cameo ring.

A charming cameo ring.

A cherub band playing accordions and a flapper wearing eyeglasses, smoking a cigarette, and holding a liquor bottle are just two rare cameo styles that have sold for huge amounts in auction.

Many famous figures popularized the cameo in their time. Napoleon himself wore a cameo to his wedding and created a Paris school to teach the art of cameo carving. Thomas Jefferson’s dining room fireplace mantel was inset with Josiah Wedgewood cameo plaques. Catherine the Great ordered all of glass maker John Tassie’s less expensive cameo models in triplicate. Queen Victoria not only created a greater wave of cameo popularity but also popularized the cameo with the woman’s profile carved in sea shell, creating the theme we’re most familiar with today. When she went into mourning after Prince Albert’s death, she wore black cameos until she died.

In the mid-Victorian period, cameo habilles came into being. These habilles featured carved women wearing their own tiny Caraglio_Cameo_of_Barbara_Radziwiłłdiamonds on necklaces, earrings or brooches, adding significant value to the pieces. This style gained popularity and can still be found in production today.

Today mass production means more easy access to cameos now that a modern carving machine makes them ultrasonically.

However, as you can guess, there is an easy-to-see difference between machine-made cameos and those made by hand. Today, only a select number of tradesmen specialize in cameo carving. The craft takes years of dedication to perfect.