The History of Greeting Cards
The custom of sending greeting cards can be traced back to the ancient Chinese, who exchanged messages of good will to celebrate the New Year, and to the early Egyptians, who conveyed their greetings on papyrus scrolls.
By the early 1400s, handmade paper greeting cards were being exchanged in Europe. The Germans are known to have printed New Year’s greetings from woodcuts as early as 1400, and handmade paper Valentines were being exchanged in various parts of Europe in the early to mid-1400s.
By the 1850s, the greeting card had been transformed from a relatively expensive, handmade and hand-delivered gift to a popular and affordable means of personal communication, due largely to advances in printing and mechanization, as well as the 1840 introduction of the postage stamp.
The first known published Christmas card appeared in London in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole hired artist John Calcott Horsley to design a holiday card that he could send to his friends and acquaintances.
Although the first known valentine card can be traced back to 1415, it wasn’t until the early 1800s and the Penny Post that they became popular and affordable. Esther Howland, a young woman from Massachusetts, was the first regular publisher of valentines in the United States. She sold her first handmade valentine in 1849, eventually establishing a successful publishing firm specializing in the elaborately decorated cards.
The American Greeting Card
Louis Prang, a German immigrant who started a small lithographic business near Boston in 1856, is generally credited with the start of the greeting card industry in America.
Within ten years of founding his firm, he had perfected the color lithographic process to a point where his reproductions of great paintings surpassed those of other graphic arts craftsmen in both the U.S. and Great Britain. In the early 1870s, Prang began publishing deluxe editions of Christmas cards, which found a ready market in England. In 1875, he introduced the first complete line of Christmas cards to the American public.
Prang’s cards had reached their height of popularity in the early 1890s, when cheap imitative imports began to flood the market, eventually forcing Prang to abandon his greeting card publishing business. Between 1890 and 1906, there was a marked decline in U.S. greeting card production.
In the years immediately following 1906, the domestic business climate for greeting cards improved, and a number of today’s leading publishers were founded. Most of the cards by these fledgling U.S. publishers bore little relation to Prang’s elaborate creations. The expressed sentiment was the predominant element; the illustrated portions were incidental
Following World War I, new publishers continued to enter the field and healthy competition produced important innovations in printing processes, art techniques and decorative treatments for greeting cards.
In the early 1930s, publishers increasingly adopted the use of color lithography, a move that would propel the U.S. greeting card industry toward continued growth and expansion.
During World War II, the industry rallied for the war effort, helping the government sell war bonds and providing cards for the soldiers overseas. This period also marked the beginning of its close relationship with the U.S. Postal Service.
By the 1950s, the studio card – a long card with a short punch line – appeared on the scene to firmly establish the popularity of humor in American greeting cards.
During the 1980s, alternative cards began to appear – cards not made for a particular holiday or event, but as a more casual reminder of our connections to one another. The popularity of “non-occasion" cards continues to swell.
Explosive growth in electronic technology, and burgeoning consumer use of the Internet, gave birth to the electronic greeting card or E-card in the late 1990s. The development of this entirely new medium for card-sending served to further expand the industry, producing new E-card publishers as well as E-greeting product offerings by traditional publishers.