Where Did the Tradition Of Greeting Cards Develop

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Whether its the holidays or occasions that we want to celebrate, greeting cards are fixed in Western cultures today and giving them to friends or acquaintances seems second nature to us. How did this tradition develop? As one might expect, greeting cards developed from more ancient roots. Additionally, the use and intention of greeting cards has also changed, where cultural interests and changes applied in time have developed our current traditions and those used around the world.

Origin of Greeting Cards

Greeting cards have their origin perhaps soon after the invention of writing. Already in ancient Sumerian culture in the 3rd millennium BCE, clay tablets have been found with greetings that maybe have been sent as a card of well-wishing. In Bronze Age China and Egypt, these societies show evidence of personalized messages sent to others celebrating the New Year or providing well wishes at the end of the year (Figure 1). In fact, this is the origin of New Year greeting cards. In China, the idea was to send messages to ward off the evil spirit Nian, who would terrorize people at the end of the year. Cards would be given at the beginning of the year and the cards were intended to have luck or power to help ward off the evil spirit for the entire year, with the tradition renewed each new year. The presence of evil spirits and the wishing away of evil in the Near Year are still part of celebrations of the Chinese New Year. In Egypt, among the earliest personalized greeting cards have been found, where named individuals wishing well to other named individuals has been found. The idea was to send personalized greetings in the New Year, in a way similar to Chinese New Year culture, but rather than warding evil spirits the idea was to wish someone well and celebrate the beginning of the new life cycle that would begin in the New Year. For Egypt, the calendar would begin with the rising of the star Sothis, or our star Sirius, sometime around August/September. For Chinese traditions, New Year was generally around January/February, where the tradition follows a lunar calendar.[1]

Around 100 CE, paper was invented by the Chinese. The use of personalized messages became also popular in the new medium as the use of paper spread to other cultures along the Silk Road and utilizing sea routes. In the Medieval period, in Europe, New Year also became a time for people to reflect and think about the year ahead. Worries about the harvest or coming year led people to write well wishes to each other. Sometimes this would be done in personalized wood carvings or what became common was using paper. By the 14th century in German states, personal greeting cards more similar to today had developed, which resemble our handmade cards that were written with short wishes for good fortune in the New Year. In the 14th century, most greeting cards were the privilege of the upper class, as handmade cards were generally expensive.[2]

Figure 1. A papyrus greeting card.

Holidays and Greeting Cards

By the mid-15th century, greeting cards had moved from mostly a New Year formality to something being exchanged in other periods. One of the first periods used outside of New Year was in celebration of St. Valentine. In fact, Margery Brews, in 1477, is considered to have composed the oldest known Valentine's Day love letter and card to her fiancé (Figure 2). Despite this change, greeting cards were still considered too expensive and difficult for most people to have. However, greeting cards continued to be made, although the volume was generally low.[3]

The major change occurred in the late mid-19th century, when at that time innovations in mechanized printing and mass production, along with better postal routes and cheaper postal rates, made sending greeting cards affordable. It was at this time that greeting cards became popular for other occasions. Greeting cards also become more decorative, with scenes and art now more commonly added. One of the first greeting cards in this new period was for Christmas, when Sir Henry Cole, in 1847, hired the designer John Calcott Horsley to create the first personalized Christmas cards that were also decorated for the season (Figure 3). These cards were then posted by Cole to his friends as a greeting for the Christmas period. By the 1860s, several companies began to develop mass-produced cards, with these cards mostly focusing on Christmas and New Years. Valentine's Day was also popular for those sending well wishes to their loved ones. With mass production and lower prices, greeting cards soon became popular as part of the wider Christmas and holiday traditions. Companies saw this development and invested heavily by professionalizing the produce through the hiring of expert designers and artists such as Kate Greenaway to help create what would later become classic designs, with the Northern Ireland company Marcus Ward & Co becoming one of the first leaders in greeting cards. These designs were used for Christmas, Valentine's Day, and also the company tried to extend the market by creating generic cards that could be used for other occasions such as birthdays. Soon greeting cards began to be extended to other holidays in the 1870s and later, as low prices and easy reproduction made them popular as part of gifts sent to others.[4]

Figure 2. The oldest known Valentine's Day love letter and form of greeting card known in the English language is from Margery Brews dated to 1477.
Figure 3. Copy of one of the first mass produced Christmas greeting cards.

Development and Meaning Today

Greeting cards did not evolve a lot more during the late 19th century and early 20th century. The wellknown company Hallmark Cards Inc. was founded in 1910 in Kansas City. The company initially started out by selling postcards but by 1912 began to focus on writing letters and cards. In 1917, the company even developed what would become gift wrapping paper. In the US, Hallmark soon began to dominate the market by the 1920s. With the introduction of better color printing and color lithography in the 1930s, greeting cards experienced a renewal of even greater interest by the public. This renewal of interest led to more experimentation with how to use cards, such as the development of humorous cards that went beyond simply wishing someone well or giving affection to someone. The development of humorous and different types of non-edifying cards developed as a reaction to Hallmark and other major manufacturers dominating the market. Many of the cards of the larger companies were seen as static or impersonal. Humorous cards became of greater interest as a way to seem more personal and to find a niche market within the wider greeting cards market. More recently, this has extended to areas such as recyclable cards or cards made of recycled materials as a way to increase interest by more environmentally-conscious customers. More recently, e-cards, including animated cards, are an extension of this and represent the next level of development companies and entrepreneurs have developed in the greeting card industry.[5]

Greeting Cards Around the World

While in the US, mass-produced cards have become the norm, other countries have either been influenced by this or have developed their own traditions. In the UK, there are perhaps among the highest number of publishers focused on greeting cards, where the tradition of sending greeting cards is not only well established but is also among the most profitable. Over 1.5 billion cards are sent by UK publishers alone, making it the highest number on a per-capita basis. While many traditional publishers have suffered, they have also adapted by making more creative ways to send personalized messages and cards as well as using digital media.[6]

In Japan, greeting cards that have combined other popular culture themes, such as Hello Kitty, have become popular for people to send on different occasions. In Germany, birthdays such as 18th birthday and 25th birthday have led to developed specialized cards for these occasions. In India and among Hindu cultures, Dewali, the Hindu festival of lights, is a popular holiday when cards are exchanged. These often show fireworks or light displays that reflect the victory of light over darkness. In Muslim traditions, Ramadan is a holiday where well-wishers send each other greeting cards. In particular, Eid, which celebrates the end of the Ramadan fast period, greeting cards are sent with celebrations that include food and sweets. For Jewish tradition, both Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah are popular holidays in exchanging greeting cards.[7]


Greeting cards are a tradition that goes back to the early days of writing. New Year festivals were initially the most common period when greeting cards were sent, as they reflected a time where one would want to keep evil spirits away or ask for good fortune in the year. Valentine's day in the Medieval period became popular for greeting cards, but that period saw a limited use for greeting cards. In the mid-19th century, Christmas cards became popularized and soon other holidays and birthdays began to adopt the idea of using greeting cards to send to family, friends, and loved ones.


  1. For more on the earliest forms of greeting cards, see: Dasgupta, A. K. (2014). Arts, crafts and traditional industries. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, pg. 6.
  2. For more on the Medieval tradition of greeting cards, see: Mieder, W. (2016). Tradition and innovation in folk literature. Routledge, pg. 17.
  3. For more on the first known Valentine's Day love letter and card, see: Thiébaux, M. (Ed.). (1994). The Writings of medieval women: an anthology (2nd ed). New York: Garland Pub.
  4. For more on the first mass-produced greeting cards and use in Christmas, see: Buday, G. (1992). The history of the Christmas card. Detroit: Omnigraphics.
  5. For more on the development of the American greeting card industry, see: Shank, B. (2004). A token of my affection: greeting cards and American business culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
  6. For more on today's greeting card industry, see: http://www.greetingcardassociation.org.uk/resources/for-publishers/the-market/facts-and-figures
  7. For greeting card traditions around the world, see: Williams, V. (2017). Celebrating life customs around the world: from baby showers to funerals. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.