With the festive season upon us we take a look at how Christmas cards came to feature images of smartly dressed posties, pillar boxes, and even delivery robins.

Now the festive season is here, many of us will soon receive Christmas cards delivered by our local posties.

Some of these cards likely feature images of snowy pillar boxes or maybe even of a robin delivering the mail in a snowy scene. But how and why did they become popular on Christmas Cards? And how did Posties become associated with Robins? For the answers to these questions we have to go all the way back to the earliest Christmas cards.

Early Christmas Cards

Many of the Christmas traditions we celebrate today, like trees and crackers, all started in the Victorian era. It also when the idea of sending Christmas cards become popular after the first commercially produced Christmas card was created by Sir Henry Cole in 1843.

First Commercial Christmas Card, Henry Cole ,1843, 2003-0476

Early Christmas cards were expensive to produce. They were printed on one-side only and were the size of a typical business card today. Many were printed in black and white or sepia and were hand coloured. Most were initially produced by Valentine’s card printers, who were looking to expand, so many early Christmas cards often contained romantic images, rather than religious ones.

Things changed with the developments in printing processes in the 1860s. New cheaper cards with different, more complex designs became available and by the 1870s the practice of sending Christmas cards had firmly been established as a British Christmas tradition.

Designing cards soon became a serious business, with designs even reviewed in the national press. They were seen by many as pieces of art and card companies often commissioned prominent artists to create new designs.

This ‘Christmas Cards’ – Print from The London Illustrated News, Dec. 13 1884 pokes fun at the popularity of cards and the rush to get them when they were released.

Christmas card designs

Cards started to appear in different shapes and sizes and some were further decorated with colourful paper, ribbon or frosting. Others featured animals, puns, riddles and hidden messages.

Designs featured a wide range of imagery including symbols representing the natural world and pagan yuletide images from historical winter celebrations. Holly and ivy, lambs and images of spring were popular, as well as the more familiar robins, celebrations, and Father Christmas.

At this time depictions of the postal service on Christmas cards also became very popular – with letter boxes and postmen frequently appearing. This may be because of the popularity of the postal service itself. Christmas cards were introduced at a time when sending mail had become a lot easier and cheaper for people.

The Victorian era saw a communication revolution with the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840– in which a letter or card was paid for in advance with a postage stamp (known as a Penny Black) and cost just a penny. Before 1840, the British postal system was highly complex and very expensive. Letters were charged by distance and the number of sheets of paper they used. Normally, the charge was paid by the recipient and it could be very expensive. With the introduction of the Penny Post, the postal service became very popular as more and more letters were sent.

As the main means of communication, the postal service became a vital part of Victorian daily life and images of postal workers quickly became part of public culture. More and more images of them appeared in paintings, drawings, song performances, cigarette cards and much more. Changes to their uniform even made the newspapers.

Front cover of the song sheet for ‘The Postman’ by popular performer Arthur Lloyd. Songs such as these celebrated the role of the postman in delivering news straight to people’s doorsteps. c.1862 2009-0050

Posties and Post boxes on cards

In this card from around 1860-1890 we see the image of a Mail Coach Guard. Dressed in their distinctive red frockcoat and top hat he is seen standing on the back of a Mail Coach which is filled high with sacks of mail and parcels travelling mail through a snowy scene.

‘A Happy New Year’ Card Around 1860 -1890 2006.285/2

Although Mail Coach Guards were mostly a thing of the past by the 1850s, romanticised images of Mail Coach Guards in their distinctive uniform continued to be popular, featuring across a range of materials throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. They were often shown heroically transporting mail across the country in difficult conditions or under threat of attack by high-way men.

Christmas cards have also featured smartly dressed posties delivering Christmas mail. Smiling straight at us, the man is instantly recognisable as a postie, wearing the formal blue frockcoat with red piping and gold buttons. He is also wearing a typical Double-Peaked Shako hat with a badge carrying the initials GPO, for General Post Office. His satchel features a flap that can be opened. A popular feature in early 20th century cards.

Christmas Greetings from Toyland postcard Around.1920 OB1994.296/5

With Christmas cards featuring a variety of designs drawn from Christmas images, winter themes, and images of the world around them, it seems natural that Victorian cards would also feature images of the postal service, a vital part of this new, popular Christmas tradition.

Images sometimes referenced the act of sending mail, with snowy scenes such as this one from a card manufacturer, Alexander Baird and Son Limited. Here we see two young children, posting Christmas letters into a large pillar box.

Alexander Baird and Son Limited Around. early 20th century.

Pillar boxes also featured on their own like in this Pillar Box shaped card. The inside poem describes a Postman knocking on doors for his ‘Christmas Box’. These were a token of appreciation at Christmas, rather like we give tips to people for good service today.

Pillar-box shaped Christmas card, Around.1860-1890 2006-0285/5

Robins on Christmas cards

It’s not just posties that were seen delivering mail in Christmas cards. Animals were popular subjects in early Christmas cards and continue to be so today. None are as popular as the Robin who feature across a range different designs.

Robins have been associated with images of mail delivery since the Victorian period. They often appear to be delivering messages of alongside pillar boxes. They have even featured as postal workers delivering mail. Legend has it that postmen in Victorian Britain were nicknamed ‘Robins’ because their bright red jackets and waistcoats had become such a familiar sight.

Celebrated Victorian author Anthony Trollope, himself a Post Office employee, has his characters refer to the local postman as a ‘Robin Postman’ in his 1860 novel Framley Parsonage.

“Oh, but it’s mortial wet,” said the shivering postman as he handed in that and the vicar’s newspaper. The vicar was a man of the world, and took the Jupiter. “Come in, Robin postman, and warm theeself awhile,” said Jemima the cook, pushing a stool a little to one side, but still well in front of the big kitchen fire.


However, some people think that the robins featured simply because they are a familiar bird seen at Christmas time. Others point to the birds link to Christianity.

Although this nickname hasn’t stuck to posties, images of Robins delivering messages at Christmas continues to endure. They still appear delivering mail, next to, or on post-boxes.

This Victorian Christmas tradition is still going strong with an estimated 900 million Christmas Cards of all shapes, sizes and designs being sent within the UK each year. Posties and postal scenes continue to feature, alongside images of delivery robins.

You can find out more about the history and impact of posties iconic uniforms in our current exhibition Dressed to Deliver.

From smartly dressed Victorians and their formal frockcoats to modern posties and their all-weather active wear, Dressed to Deliver takes a closer look at postal uniforms from the 1780s to present day. Open until September 2024.