The History Of Greeting Cards Unfurled

Pass the Papyrus
The custom of exchanging greetings is an ancient one. The Chinese sent messages of good will to one another for the New Year, and the early Egyptians used papyrus scrolls to send greetings to one another.

What’s Nien Got To Do With It?
The ancient Chinese had a specific reason for sending these greetings: They were trying to ward off the wild beast in Chinese legend called Nien.

The Chinese believed that Nien was a monster who attacked and killed villagers at the end of each year, which is also why the word ‘nien’ means ‘year’ in Chinese.

The Chinese New Year Traditions Begin
To prevent Nien’s vicious attacks at the end of each year, the ancient Chinese used brilliant lights and loud noises to scare him away and sent their best wishes to one another as each new year began.

Europe Gets In On the Act
In Europe, handmade greeting cards made from paper started being exchanged by the early 1400s.

It was the Germans who printed New Year’s greetings from woodcuts at that time, while handmade paper valentines were exchanged for Valentine’s Day in various areas of Europe by the early to mid-1400s.

Greeting cards of this sort were relatively expensive, handmade, and delivered by hand to the recipient.

How the Cards Stack Up
According to Emotions Greeting Card Museum, the oldest known greeting card in existence is a valentine made during the 1400s which is now housed in the British Museum in London.

Although sending New Year’s cards didn’t become popular until the late 1700s, there are New Year cards that can also be dated back to the 1400s.

However, the most popular cards exchanged during the 15th century were valentines and Christmas cards.

Mechanization and Postage Stamps
As advances were made in printing and mechanization, it was probably only a matter of time before the greeting card became commercialized.

Then with the introduction of the world’s first postage stamp in 1840, the stage was set for greeting cards to gain mass popularity.

Sir Henry Cole Invents The First Commercial Greeting Card
In fact, this is precisely what happened when three years later in 1843, Sir Henry Cole invented the first commercial greeting card for Christmas in Victorian England.

Coincidentally, it was in the same year of 1843 that Cole’s fellow Victorian, the author Charles Dickens, published his classic novella entitledA Christmas Carol. Critics heaped praise upon this ghostly morality tale, and it quickly became a great commercial success.

A Finger In Many Pies
An eminent English civil servant, art patron, and educator, Cole held a range of important positions.

Early in his career he had an essential role in reforming the organization and preservation of the British national Archives. Later on he was instrumental in reforming the Public Record Office in London, and for heading the campaign to upgrade standards in industrial design. This latter effort of his was supported first by Prince Albert and later by Queen Victoria.

Eight years after he invented that first commercial Christmas card, his involvement paved the way for him to obtain the position of manager of ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations’ which was held in The Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park in 1851.

Cole’s Part In Creating The Victoria & Albert Museum
‘The Great Exhibition’, as it was more commonly called, was an enormously popular and financial success. As one of its Commissioners, Cole was also pivotal in the decision to use a surplus of £186,000 from the Great Exhibition for improving art education and science in the UK.

From this impetus began the development of the South Kensington Museum (which is now the Victoria & Albert Museum, and more commonly known as the V&A). Cole was involved with the museum’s planning and also served as its first director.

Founded in 1852, the V&A is now the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design.

Why Cole Created The First Commercial Christmas Card
Throughout his illustrious career, ‘Old King Cole’ (as Sir Henry Cole was also known) had an unwanted burden that came along with all of these important positions in society, namely this one:

He felt he had too many Christmas cards to contend with and write every year!

Like many others in Victorian England, Cole believed that Christmas was the time for those who were better off to help the destitute in society and so he also liked to use his Christmas cards to spread word of such charitable endeavors.

However, the drawback of this for Cole was that it made his already large Christmas card list increase even more.

Last but not least, Christmas cards in England at that time were still painted individually, hand delivered, and quite expensive.

Given this situation, Cole set about to find a solution to his problem that would save him both time and money.

Designer John Callcott Horsley
That is why Cole asked his friend John Callcott Horsley to design that first commercial Christmas card.

As the brother-in-law of the British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who created the Great Western Railway, famous steamships, the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship and many important tunnels and bridges, Horsley led the same privileged life that Cole led.

Therefore he understood Cole’s Christmas card ‘problem’, and so he decided to take on the project.

Celebrating The Ideal Victorian Christmas
For his design of a Christmas card, Horsley created a card for Cole that was around the size of an ordinary postcard.

Horsley drew trellis work and garlands of ivy to create a frame for a kind of triptych. On its sides he portrayed the charitable acts of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and in the middle section he created a happy family gathering with family members eating and drinking a toast to Christmas and the New Year.

And so he succeeded with his objective, namely to create the ideal Victorian Christmas for Cole.

Circulating Cole’s First Commercial Christmas Card
Joseph Cundall, a children’s and illustrations publisher, published a thousand copies of this card for Cole.

It was printed lithographically in black and white and then colored by hand.

Cole used as many as he required. The rest were sold for six pence each. This price meant that they were a luxury item that the working class could not afford.

This advertisement appeared in the Athenaeum paper to try and sell the extra cards: Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.

The Storyteller’s Greeting Cards: Meet Bounce the Rabbit
Forty-seven years later in 1890, a talented 24-year-old artist by the name of Beatrix Potter used her rabbit named Bounce as a model to achieve her first commercial success – however, not as the legendary children’s author that she would become later in life but rather as a creator of greeting cards.

Although they were part of the English culture by that time, Potter did not make Christmas cards. Instead, her six rabbit designs with Bounce at the helm were used for general greeting cards.

Potter got six pounds for her drawings, which came out to one pound for each illustration that she made of the rabbit.

Potter’s Good ‘Investment’
Ever an ardent animal lover, Potter was particularly grateful to Bounce for her first commercial accomplishment.

As she recollected, “My first act was to give Bounce (what an investment that rabbit has been in spite of the hutches), a cupful of hemp seeds… Then I retired to bed, and lay awake chuckling till 2 in the morning, and afterwards had an impression that Bunny came to my bedside in a white cotton night cap and tickled me with his whiskers.”

Peter Piper Morphs Into Peter Rabbit
Beatrix Potter may not have been the one to invent commercial Christmas cards. However, she did reserve Christmas 1901 to come out with something equally unique for the public when she printed 250 copies of her story about her rabbit Peter Piper in time for the holidays.

At that time, her illustrations for that private edition were drawn and printed in black and white.

It was a short while later that she made an agreement with the publisher Frederick Warne & Company that she would redraw all the pictures in color.

Her efforts would result in “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” which was published commercially to fabulous acclaim in October 1902.

The UK Greeting Card Industry Today
The state of the greeting card world in the UK today a century later would most probably astound early creators of greeting cards in England like Cole, Horsley, and Potter.

That’s because according to statistics for 2009, the UK greeting card industry is now worth annually more than £1.7 billion. This figure is more than the sale of tea and coffee put together, according to the Greeting Card Association (GCA) in London.

With 800 publishers producing more than 1.5 billion greeting cards in 2009 for the British public, the UK market is the most successful greeting card industry throughout the world.

The GCA Market Report 2009 also claims that these statistics show that in the United Kingdom, each person sends on average 31 greeting cards per year.

Charities benefit from this trend as well: £50 million is raised every Christmas through the sales of charity Christmas cards.

What Kind Of Cards Are Sold the Most And By Whom In The UK?
Statistics in 2009 show that ‘everyday’ (as they are called), Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter and Father’s Day account for the majority of sales in the UK. The most popular event is Mother’s Day which accounts for almost 29 million cards sent.

Eighty-five percent of these and all greeting cards sold in the UK are bought by women.

Sir Henry Cole’s Legacy Today
When Henry Cole sent one of his first Christmas cards to his grandmother in the mid-nineteenth century, little did he know how much in value it would jump in the 21st century.

But that is just what happened when this Christmas card of his was recently sold at auction for a whopping £22,500 ($36,000).

The US Greeting Card Industry
On the other side of the Atlantic, the iconic Hallmark company estimates that the greeting card industry in the USA represents more than $7 billion yearly in retail sales.

This includes cards that Hallmark publishes in more than 30 languages for distribution in more than 100 countries.

How Joyce, Rollie, and William Hall Created Hallmark
The history of how Hallmark came into existence in the USA began in Nebraska in the early 1900s when brothers Joyce, Rollie, and William Hall began selling postcards. They sold them wholesale through the name of the Norfolk Post Card Company.

In 1910 when Joyce was 18 years old, he moved to Missouri where he sold postcards wholesale from the modest room where he stayed in the local YMCA.

A year later, Rollie moved to Missouri and the Hall Brothers company was formed.

Anticipating A Market
Postcards were becoming less popular at this time. The Halls started making their own greeting cards after they had the idea for a greeting card company because they recognized that the public wanted greater privacy than postcards could offer.

What they wanted, the Hall Brothers concluded, were cards mailed in individual envelopes.

It wasn’t until 1925 that the word “Hallmark” first appeared on the back of a card, however. Three years later, the brand name appeared on all of the cards that the company produced.

Like A Scene From The TV Series ‘Mad Men’?
To middle-aged and older people, Hallmark’s iconic slogan “When you care enough for the very best” seems to have been around forever.

In a scene that would make the award-winning TV series ‘Mad Men’ proud, that slogan was actually created in 1944 by a salesman at a meeting when he scribbled it on a cocktail napkin.

Sure enough, Hallmark has that cocktail napkin – with the salesman’s original scrawling of the slogan – on display at its company headquarters.

Eco-Friendly Ecards
Decades after Hallmark’s salesman penned that slogan, ecards made their debut on the Internet.

With the move to digital technology, it is not surprising that ecards now account for a significant proportion of all greeting cards sent.

And with the increasing concerns about environmental matters and the acres of trees that are used to produce greeting cards, it is obvious that the trend is to more and more ecards.

In an ironic twist, greeting cards may once again be something that only the very few will send as was the case before Cole invented the commercial Christmas card in the 19th century for the mass market.

Connect With Quality And Speed
Still, don’t despair since Quillcards™ ecards give you the best of the old with the new – traditional values of quality and attention to detail running hand in hand with the new qualities of speed and eco-friendliness.

References:
Websites
American Greetings
Greeting Card Association
Wikipedia
Victoria & Albert Museum
Hallmark
History.com
The British Postal Museum & Archive
Emotions Greeting Card Museum
BibliOdyssey

Book
The Ultimate Peter Rabbit: A Visual Guide to the World of Beatrix Potter by Camilla Hallinan. Dorling Kindersley, 2002.

A Selection of Ecards From Quillcards – Click To See More

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    Comments

    1. says

      A very interesting article, a great insight to the history of greeting cards. I find it fascinating that 85% of greeting cards in the UK are bought by women, perhaps that’s just because women love gorgeous things.

      • Tamara Colloff-Bennett says

        Hi Andrea – Many thanks for your kind compliments, I appreciate it. Yes, I too found it amazing that such a high percentage of greeting cards sold in the UK are bought by women.

        I want to mention that I looked at your site, and its concept is interesting.

        As I’m writing, here’s also wishing you a great New Year ahead!

    2. Tamara Colloff-Bennett says

      Many thanks for the lovely compliment, Caroline – I appreciate it, and I’m glad you liked the article.

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