Greeting Cards - History, Origins & Uses

The creation of a written language enables two key activities: the recording of information and the sending of information to a recipient. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that the sending of greetings is as old as written language.

There is evidence that that ancient Egyptians sent greetings messages on papyrus and in the 1st Century CE the people of Rome exchanged medals bearing the inscription ‘ The Senate and People of Rome Wish a Happy and Prosperous New Year to Hadrianus Augustus, Father of the Country.’ An early example of a mass-produced greeting distributed for commercial gain.

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Birthday Card Origins
Christmas Card Origins
Valentine's Card Origins
Mother's Day Card Origins
Father's Day Card Origins
Birth Announcement Card Origins
E Card Origins

Origins of the greetings card

Woodblock printing appeared in China around 220CE and by 1040CE the Chinese had a system of printing which used moveable type, a technology which enabled the production of ‘visiting cards’, a combination of image and text used to inform the recipient that a visit had been made. By the 17th Century this custom had spread to Europe and from there to Britain and the United States. The use of visiting cards was restricted to the wealthy upper classes and spawned an elaborate language of social etiquette, however, the blank reverse of the card allowed for a personal hand-written message, which in effect, made the visiting card, or calling card, an early form of

It was of course the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1650 and subsequent developments in lithographic technology in the 19th century which facilitated the mass production of greetings cards.  Today, Hallmark Cards and American Greetings, both American companies, are the largest producers of greetings cards in the world.  Despite the decline of newspapers and other hard copy print forms, the greetings card retains its popularity: in the 2010s, American customers bought around 7 billion cards, generating sales in excess of $7.5 billion.

Popularity accelerated by mass literacy

The rise in popularity of mass-produced greetings cards was the result of a rise in mass literacy, however, the early appeal of greetings cards was also that they enabled individuals, with limited literacy, to communicate in a sophisticated and elevated way.  Of course, a greetings card is not just a text, the image which it carries is of equal or more importance and the images and text of mass-produced greetings cards were initially instrumental in reinforcing cultural values and norms.

Though there are still plenty of greetings cards today which carry traditional sentiments and values, there is also a growing market for irony and subversive humour, catering for an audience who have sophisticated skills in decoding images and text and who are members of a diverse, multi-cultural society.

Greetings cards need a delivery system

Although the first postage stamp didn’t appear until 1840, according to the Athenian historian Xenophon, the Persian King, Cyrus the Great established an efficient mail service around 550 BCE. The Romans certainly had a well-documented postal service, the cursus publicus, by the time of Emperor Augustus and in China, the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) had a postal service which employed around 20,000 people.  After the introduction of the Penny Black in 1840, the use of printed stamps as a means of paying for mail was swiftly adopted around the world and by 1860, 90 countries had their own postage stamps. 

It was the invention of the stamp that made sending a greetings card much easier and therefore much more appealing.

The sustained appeal of the greetings card

By the mid-19th century a newly prosperous middle class were establishing themselves in the West, eager to demonstrate their gentility and their affluence. The greetings card offered a cheap and easy way to confirm shared social values with their friends and to send appropriate sentiments without having to go to the trouble of writing a long letter or crafting an expression of feeling. For the recipient there is the tangible demonstration that someone else has thought about you and the opportunity to display it and signal your popularity to others.

The Birthday Card

In order for a birthday to be commemorated as a significant event it was necessary for the society in question to have a calendar system which was widely understood by the general populace.  There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks celebrated certain days as the birthday of particular gods and the book of Genesis contains the description of a pharaoh’s birthday party, but it was the Romans who began the custom of celebrating the birth of ordinary men.  The birthdays of women would not be celebrated until the 12th century. Wooden tablets found at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s wall, record an invitation, dictated by Claudia Severa, inviting her friend to a birthday celebration and they probably represent the earliest form of birthday card yet discovered.  The mass-produced birthday card as we know it today, first made its appearance in mid-19th century Britain, shortly after the production of the first Christmas cards.

The birthday card remains the most popular form of greetings card around the world and despite predictions that it would soon be superseded by E cards, the traditional card still retains its popularity, particularly with millennials, the very group who might be expected to prefer a cyber greeting.

The birthday card enables the sender to record a short, hand-written, personal message which carries greater emotional impact than a purely printed communication. It is an inexpensive demonstration of thoughtfulness, which gives pleasure to the sender and receiver.  The birthday card is an invitation to celebrate but it is also a reminder of our mortality and it reflects societal views, often negative, on the ageing process.

The Christmas Card

Nowadays we think of Christmas as the most important Christian holiday, but its importance is a comparatively recent phenomenon.  Up until the 19th century, Easter was the most important Christian festival.  The bible does not give a date for the birth of Jesus, so in the 4th century Pope Julius the 1st chose 25th December as a stratagem to absorb the influence of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which culminated in the celebration of the god Mithra on the 25th December.  The English puritans banned Christmas, on the grounds that it did not appear in the bible and in America, Christmas was outlawed in Boston between 1659 and 1681 and Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

The Christmas card was a key element of the Victorian re-invention of Christmas as a celebration of consumerism. The first commercially available Christmas cards were published in England in 1843, the same year which saw the publication of Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’, a text which defined contemporary understanding of what Christmas should be.  Sir Henry Cole hired artist John Calcott Horsley to design cards which could be sent to his friends.  The hand coloured cards, in an edition of 1,000, showed a family party in progress, flanked by charitable works and carrying the message ‘A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You’.  The idea was an instant success and by the 1860s British companies were hiring artists such as Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway to design increasingly elaborate cards. In America, German immigrant Louis Prang began producing Christmas cards in the 1870s and within ten years was producing 5 million cards a year.  The most popular Christmas card of all time is the Three Little Angels, designed by Ruth Morehead for Hallmark in 1977. It had sold 37 million by 1996 and is still selling today, its angels now available in a variety of ethnicities.

The Valentine’s Day Card

Valentine’s Day is another example of the early Christian church seeking to displace a pagan festival by replacing it with a new Christian one. Celebrated on the 15th February, Lupercalia was a Roman fertility festival during which boys drew the names of girls from a love urn. The festival was outlawed in the 5th century and St. Valentine’s day swiftly gained popularity across Europe and in Britain. February 14th was widely believed to be the day on which birds chose their mates, a belief which was recorded by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in 1375: ‘ For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.’ 

The oldest existing Valentine message is preserved in the British Museum, it was written from the Tower of London in 1415 and is a message from Charles Duke of Orleans to his wife. Not surprisingly, its message is rather downbeat, its opening reads: ‘I am already sick of love / my very gentle Valentine.’ 

The exchange of love tokens on Valentine’s day became popular during the Middle Ages, but written Valentines were of course only exchanged amongst the literate, however, by 1669 there was sufficient demand to warrant the publication of a book of advice entitled ‘A Valentine Writer’ which offered style guidance to the inarticulate.  It was the introduction of the penny post in Britain which triggered a Valentine craze and by 1871 the central London Post Office was dealing with 1.2 million cards and postal carriers were given a special meal allowance to keep their strength up during this peak time.  In America, Esther A Howard, subsequently known as the Mother of the Valentine, began mass producing elaborate cards of ribbon and lace in 1840, though it was not until after the end of the Civil War that the craze really caught on.  A strange permutation of the Valentine flourished during the 1830’s and 1840’s. The ‘Vinegar Valentine’ was an insulting card which could be sent anonymously to someone you did not like. The recipient might be a philanderer or drunk or all too frequently a suffragette. Since most of these cards were destroyed on receipt, few survive, but those that do suggest that they were an early form of internet trolling.  Valentine’s day is the second largest card selling holiday, with over 145 million cards sent each year, 85% of them bought by women.

The Mother’s Day Card

The Greeks and Romans both held festivals for their mother goddesses Cybele and Rhea and the early Christian festival of ‘Mothering Sunday’ celebrated a return to the mother church, but Mother’s Day as we know it today is an American invention.  Mother’s Day was created in 1908 by Anna Jarvis and became an official U.S. holiday in 1914.  Hallmark began creating cards in the 1920s and celebrations around the globe gradually conformed to the American model, although the celebrations take place on many different days around the world. Mother’s Day cards since the twenties have reflected changing attitudes to the role of women and racial diversity but continue to be extremely popular, especially in America where around 113 million cards are sent each year.

Father’s Day Cards

Like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day is a 20th century American invention, although its roots go back into early Christian history. Having attended an early Mother’s Day celebration, Sonora Smart Dodd instituted the first Father’s Day celebration in Spokane in 1908, but it was not until 1972 that it became an official holiday in the U.S. Early religion celebrated fertility and motherhood, rather than fatherhood, but with the arrival of Christianity, European countries began to celebrate Saint Joseph’s Day in recognition of Joseph’s father figure role in the raising of Jesus.

The earliest evidence of a Father’s Day type greeting is a 4,000-year-old clay tablet, inscribed by a Babylonian youth who identifies himself as Elmesu, the text wishes his father good health and a long life.  Despite its unofficial status, Hallmark began producing Father’s Day cards from the 1920’s onwards. The imagery found on Father’s Day cards represents an instructive overview of the evolving construction of masculinity in Western society. Like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day is celebrated on different days around the globe.

Birth Announcements

The birth of a child is the promise of a future and its central importance to human society has remained a constant throughout history.  It is an event which ties us to nature and causes us to reflect on the miracle of our existence. It is the narrative starting point for a human life. The birth of a child has been celebrated since before records began, inscriptions in stone from early cultures around the world celebrate the births of long forgotten kings and queens. All religions have narratives about the birth of their god or spiritual leader.  The earliest newspapers carried birth announcements and announcement cards became commercially available in mid-19th century Britain. Traditionally birth announcements give the names of the child, the time and date of birth, the gender and the weight. Contemporary birth announcement cards can be personalised online and often carry a photograph of the child.

E Cards

The first electronic card was created by Judith Donath in 1994 and by 1996 over 1.7 million electric cards had been sent.  Today the E card is a well-established form of communication, with cards available, online, for every imaginable celebration. 

There are several factors which make the E card appealing to a customer.  You card send an E card without having to go to a shop and post office, you can send it instantly as email and you can include flash animation, video or have it sent to a mobile.  The E card is convenient and environmentally friendly, but it is also transitory.  When so many of us spend our working lives online and dealing with emails, receiving an E card can seem like just another email. The convenience of the E card is also its weakness; the recipient may feel that the sender has simply chosen an option which is the easiest and cheapest.  It is perhaps for this reason that the E card has not made a significant impact on the traditional paper card industry. Online cards which can be personalised online and then sent as paper copies continue to be popular, but in some cases, designing a card online may turn out to be just as time consuming as buying a card designed by a professional. It may be a nostalgic tradition which will pass, but at the moment, for many people, a hand-written message carries more emotional weight than a printed text.