The History of Greeting Cards – Sumerian, Victorian and beyond…

The History of Greeting Cards - Sumerian, Victorian and beyond...

Greeting cards began to mark life cycles in nature and ward off the vengeful spirits of the New Year…

Every day in the UK hundreds and hundreds of greeting cards are sent and received by people who want to celebrate something. In fact, it is thought that each person will send an average of 31 cards every year. Hard to believe when you consider how dreadful men are at remembering occasions but not so hard to believe when you consider how easy it is to find a card for even the most obscure celebration and when you hear that 85% of cards are bought and sent by women. A card culture is very much ingrained throughout the world but where did it all begin and why is it that we send a piece of decorated cardboard to someone we love when they get another year older or when they have done something great? Read on to delve into the evolution of the greeting card.

3000 years BC (before Christ, before cards)

We begin by aligning the start of the greeting card with the start of the written language some 3000 years BC. In the beginning we know that the Sumerians wrote messages on clay tablets in the same way cavemen wrote symbols on the walls of caves. Perhaps these messages were not written for the sake of a celebration, or in fact as the first kind of greeting card but they were written to convey a message to others and would have contained personal messages like contemporary cards do.

Egyptian influence

The first real evidence of personalised cards as we know them takes us back to the time of the Egyptians. They used papyrus, a paper-like material, to write personal messages to others during New Year celebrations. This time of year marked new life cycles in nature and they exchanged these written messages along with presents to celebrate.

Chinese Origin

The derivation of cards in Chinese culture can be tracked back to an ancient Chinese legend when they were sent in goodwill to ward off a wild beast called “Nian” (“year”), who is thought to have attacked and killed villagers at the end of each year. Cards were distributed at the beginning of each New Year as a way of wishing good luck to the villager’s in the year to follow. It is this old folktale, and the mythological monster, that bought about the Chinese New Year, which is now well rooted in their culture, and the start of the greeting card.

And along comes paper…

Over time civilizations began to use different materials for writing messages including animal skin, animal bone and beaten bark. However, it was the invention of paper in 105 AD that transformed the written word as a form of greeting. From this period onwards the Chinese invented many forms of paper, and after 750 AD the Japanese developed the idea even further. Once paper had reached the rest of Asia, and then Europe, it became an indispensable material and was being mass produced by the 13th century.

Homemade cards for the elite

It was in the 14th century that homemade cards, somewhat resembling the modern greeting card, made an appearance. The Germans started to print New Year greetings on woodcut and paper greetings started to be exchanged too. Even Saint Valentine was celebrated at this time, but cards of this variety, or any variety in fact, were expensive because they were made by hand and delivered by servants, so they were few and far between. Only those with high social status would send or receive such a greeting, resulting in the greeting card becoming a symbol of wealth.

Technology plays its part in greeting card history

Commercialisation and mass-popularity of the greeting card was restricted until the 19th century because of deficiencies in technology. However, after printing developments and the introduction of the first postage stamp in 1840, the greeting card was catapulted into mainstream society. Sir Henry Cole, the inventor of the stamp, then created the first commercial greeting card three years later; a Victorian England Christmas card. The demand for cards escalated drastically.

See the world’s oldest Christmas card

Enter the card companies…

With popularity of greeting cards reaching an all-time high, companies sprung up all over Europe trying, and succeeding, to sell them. Artists were even called in to create designs for every occasion. By the 20th century some of the largest card companies to date, including Hallmark Cards which still exists today, had been established. This company which began in 1910 now publishes cards in over 30 languages and distributes in over 100 countries, demonstrating the extent to which the card phenomenon has spread over the years.

Now and in the future…

In 2009 the UK card industry was the most successful in the world. It was worth £1.7 billion and there were 800 publishers producing more than 1.5 billion cards each year. Impressive statistics but these are only set to change the longer the card industry continues; some will change for the better, some for the worse. Why? Because the digital age has opened up a whole new world for the greeting card. Personalized, all singing-all dancing, cards can now be sent straight to your chosen recipient, you have the option to purchase cards in bulk without having to leave your own home, and cheap E-cards have become a fun alternative. With Internet business booming it seems that the number of publishers and high-street card companies will continue to diminish. Clinton Cards has recently become victim to the rise of online, and others may well follow. However, having said that, people still prefer to receive a real card than an E-card and people still love to send cards to celebrate special occasions, so greeting cards definitely have a future. Who knows where that future will take us though?