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Once upon a time, there weren't greeting cards.

Have you started collecting this year’s Christmas cards for your mantel? Do you delight in discovering a little winter merriment mixed in with the usual stack of bills and junk mail you receive every day? Are you busily preparing your own warm missives for family and friends?

As one who designs greeting cards for my corporate job and a select client roster, I wondered just how the tradition of greeting cards began. I quickly learned written greetings have been employed as far back as ancient Egypt, and I didn’t need to look further than the New Testament to find proof of hand-written greetings being sent far and wide. But this wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I pondered the history of mass card creation.

In my research, I learned the ancient Chinese used written greetings to ward off wild beasts and Germans printed on woodcuts as part of a New Year’s tradition. Of course, Valentine’s day is ripe with history on the subject as handmade greeting cards were delivered as far back as the 1400’s, but nothing was widely or commercially available back then...people either created individual pieces for each recipient, or pieces were sold on an individual (and very expensive) basis.

Before inexpensive, mass-produced greeting cards could become a tradition, we needed the postage stamp to be created! In 1840, the “Penny Post” was formed, allowing commoners to atlast afford the use of a mail system. Then, in 1843, Sir Henry Cole commissioned his artist and designer friend, John Callcott Horsley to design a Christmas Greeting card in Victorian England to expedite jolly greetings to his lengthy recipient list.

This first card was about the size of today’s standard postcards and featured three sections, separated by ivy-laden trellises: charitable acts appeared on either side with an idyllic family dinner scene taking center stage. One thousand copies of this design were printed in black and white before being hand-colored. Sir Cole completed his list and the remainder were sold for an (at the time) exorbitant sum.

It wasn’t until the 1870’s that production costs reduced significantly, allowing large masses to purchase and send greeting cards to one another. Since then, Christmas cards have given way to a wide variety of greetings such as birthday, get well, sympathy, and even “just friends” cards. Entire stores are now dedicated to the folded paper creations!

It may have taken a while to arrive at the modern greeting card, but it is most certainly here to stay. Want to learn more about greeting cards and their rich history? Here are the resources I used:

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