Ever wondered what Victorians were sending at Christmas? Read on...

Giving presents at Christmas is a custom that many of us are familiar with. However, you may be surprised to learn that this tradition, as we would recognise it, only became firmly established in the Victorian era. It was the Victorians, for example, who brought in the practice of wrapping presents.

Remarkably, the Post Office did not begin to collect and deliver large parcels (you can read more in my previous blog) containing Christmas gifts and other festive fare, like turkeys, until 1883, when it launched its own parcel service in competition with other carriers.

‘The Parcels Post’ – coloured lithograph, song sheet cover, (2009-0063)

Piles of Parcels

The Post Office did not have a monopoly on collecting and delivering parcels as was the case with letters. Prior to the launch, parcels were usually carried by private carriers or railway companies.

We get some idea of the scale of the task facing the Post Office as it tried to collect and deliver parcels in time for Christmas when considering the vast amounts that it had to deal with.

On 31 December 1890, The Times wrote that

‘One of the minor wonders of the century is the diffusion through the agency of her Majesty’s Post Office of social greetings and presents at the Christmas season’.

 

It reported that at Mount Pleasant in London ‘On every previous occasion it had been possible to deal with the parcels as they arrived, but this time the officials were forced to the expedient of stacking the parcels against the walls. One of these piles was 18 yards long [c.16.5m], 11 ft. high [3.35m], and 8ft. deep [c.2.5m], and in it were 45,000 parcels.’ Readers were reassured that the stacks were cleared in the order in which they had been built.

Forbidden Items

Prior to the introduction of the Parcel Post (which for its first year of service was known as ‘Parcels Post’), if a member of the public sent a letter it could be no more than 18 inches (45.7 cm) in length, 9 inches (22.9 cm) in width and 6 inches (15.2 cm). Moreover, there was no limit to the weight that could be sent.

However, there were restrictions about what could be posted. According to the Post Office Guide, January 1883, Postmasters ‘are instructed not to receive any letter which there is good reason to believe contains anything likely to injure the contents of the mail bag, or to do bodily harm to any officer of the Post Office’. This included:

Post Office Guide, page 15, Jan 1883 (POST 92/76)

The Parcels Post

With the launch of the Parcels Post on 1 August 1883 these restrictions were lifted. Announcing the launch, The Post Office Guide, 1 July 1883, states that this was on the condition that they were:

‘packed and guarded in so secure a manner as to afford complete protection to the contents of the Mails and to the Officers of the Post Office.’

 

Parcels were accepted up to 7 pounds (just over 3 kg) in weight with a maximum length of 3 feet 6 inches (just over 1 metre) or a combined maximum length and girth of 6 feet (1.8 metres).

It must have been quite a shock for Post Office officials to have to deal with the variety of foodstuffs that the introduction of the Parcels Post brought. The lifting of restrictions over what could be posted may also explain why the Victorians did not always package such items appropriately, which could lead to breakages.

A report from the Postmaster at Paddington, dated 21 March 1884, together with an accompanying letter drew attention to the problem.

According to these, a parcel had been received consisting of ‘a tin box in which were enclosed a mineral water bottle full of cream, two half pounds of butter, and five eggs, the latter wrapped simply in their paper, without in any way being packed, the consequence being that the eggs were left free to roll about the tin box, and each appears to have come in contact with the thick bottle during its transit here, the result being that all the eggs were smashed to a pulp.’

This example of unsuitable packing led to the issue of a special notice, sent out to newspapers and head postmasters in May 1884, setting out how

‘ALL ARTICLES intended for transmission by PARCELS POST should be carefully packed by the Senders so as to avoid injury during transit …They must not be posted in a Letter Box, but must be taken into a Post Office and handed over the Counter.’

 

It stated that ‘The main object of careful packing is to prevent the article packed moving to and fro’ in its box, or other receptacle, during transit.’

‘Christmas puddings, mince pies, poultry and game are sent away in great abundance’

Notices from the museum and newspaper reports give an insight into the kinds of items that Victorians were sending at Christmas.

A notice from 1886 said that ‘It is desira[ble] that any Christmas Presents, such for instance as contain Holly, [mi]stletoe, or other Decorations, Poultry, Game, Puddings, Oysters, Mince Pies or other Pastry, Confectionery, Apples, Toys, Fancy Arti[cles] &c., intended for transmission by Parcel Post, should be carefully packed by the senders so as to preserve them from injury’.

Special notice on Christmas arrangements, Dec 1886 (POST 107/810)

The Times reported that, in 1889, it was estimated that 100,000 of the parcels sent during the Christmas season were either turkeys, fowls, or game. An ‘enormous number of Christmas puddings’ were sent not only within the United Kingdom but abroad as well.

The Times also reported that ‘Although the Post Office does not undertake to carry living things, two live doves were intrusted [sic] to the parcel post, and these were safely delivered. It is important, however, that the public should be cautioned against such consignments, as the department cannot be expected to protect domestic pets from death amid such a great pressure of work’.

See more surprising Victorian items on display on your visit.

– Louise Todd, Archivist