You could say that greeting cards date as far back as ancient China and Egypt. In ancient Egypt, papyrus scrolls were mainly used to write religious and government texts but sometimes also to send messages. Papyrus was an abundant plant in the Nile Delta and used to make rope, mats, sandals as well as a writing surface. In ancient China, messages of goodwill were sent to celebrate New Year.
By the 15th century, people began to send handmade cards to each other. This was the start of the Renaissance period when there was an increasing interest in art and literature throughout Europe. Romantic messages to loved ones and the first Valentine's cards were thought to start around this period.
In the early 1400s, Germans are known to have produced greetings cards using woodcuts. This was a time-consuming printing process: a design was carved into a block of wood and this was then used to print designs onto paper. These cards were mainly sent to celebrate New Year.
An example of a woodcut print
In Italy, more delicate handmade cards were produced. In particular, Valentine's cards were made with intricate lace effects. These early Valentine's Day cards were very expensive and used predominately by the elite.
The first Valentine's message is thought to date back to 1415. It was sent from Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was being held captive in The Tower of London. Charles was a french nobleman who was captured by the British during the hundred years' war. He wrote a poem for his wife that began 'I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine'.
Valentine's cards were being exchanged in Europe during the early to mid 15th Century. The oldest Valentine's card still in existence was bought at an auction in 2019 by Jakki Brown, the editor of a greeting card magazine 'Progressive Greetings'.
The message on the front reads "Farewell you sweet and turtle dove. On you alone, I fixed my love. And if you never can be mine, I never can no comfort find!". It is believed to be 230 years old.
By the 1800s Valentine cards became more affordable due to cheaper printing methods and the arrival of the postal service. Before this time, greeting cards were expensive, handmade items that also had to be delivered by hand.
Printing practices had advanced. Mechanised printing presses meant that greeting cards became much more affordable. Add to that the introduction of the postage stamp and suddenly sending a card became more practical and more affordable.
The postage stamp was introduced in 1840. This removed the need to hand-deliver a card and started the massive rise in popularity of greeting cards.
Just three years later, in 1843, Sir Henry Cole created the first commercial Christmas card. Sir Henry Cole was a civil servant and a great innovator. He was the chief organiser of the Great Exhibition, the pioneer of the penny post, as well as the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Sir Cole had a long list of friends and acquaintances to send Xmas cards to. In order to reduce the time and effort required to send cards to this extensive list of people, he decided to create and print his own Christmas card.
Sir Henry Cole John Callcott Horsley
He hired artist John Callcott Horsley to design the card and had one thousand copies printed. The card depicted three generations of a family raising a toast to the recipient. On either side were scenes of charity showing food and clothing being given to the poor. After sending a card to all of his acquaintances, he sold the remainder. Thus, almost by accident, he had created the first commercial Christmas card. At a cost a shilling each they were way beyond the reach of the average working man however.
By the 1860's companies had started to produce greeting cards on mass. Further advances in printing resulted in lower prices and greeting cards became affordable to all. Lithography had transformed commercial printing by allowing high volume printing at relatively low cost.
A Victorian era Valentine's card located in the Museum of London
Humorous greeting cards began to appear in the 1940s and 1950s. Nowadays greeting cards cover a wide range of occasions and styles. As have have seen the early greeting cards rotated round New Year and Valentines. Now birthdays make up the bulk of greeting card sales worldwide but Christmas, Valentines and the more recent Mother's Day and Father's Day celebrations are important dates now too. Add to that Anniversary, Leaving, New Home, New Job, Get Well Soon, Thank you, Retirement, Wedding Day, New Baby cards among many other events and we see that there is a greeting card for every occasion.
In the UK alone, we spend £1.7 billion on greeting cards each year, each of us sending an average of 33 cards per year. There are over a thousand card publishers in the UK. While there are some very large companies, employing many people and printing cards on a large scale, the majority of publishers are small, independent, with just a handful of employees. In recent times, the advent of digital printing has allowed individuals to complete with the big players. Digital printing allows for economic printing of small print runs, even to an 'on demand' level to fulfil retail orders.
Many expected the greeting card industry to decline with the rise of mobile phones, texting, email and social media. However, despite these new forms of communication, the greeting card industry has remained buoyant. It has been shown that a handwritten greeting card has much more meaningful impact than an electronic form of contact, and makes the recipient feel much more special.
From the earliest greeting card to the latest creation, the aim has always been the same: to send a direct, personal and loving message to a recipient. Long may it continue!
Visit the Comedy Card Company and continue this fine tradition.