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Greeting Cards

Updated on January 28, 2010

Greeting Cards are cards bearing a message suitable for a general occasion, such as a holiday, or for a special personal occasion, such as a birthday, graduation, marriage, promotion, illness, or bereavement. They may also be sent simply to express friendship.

People's need to communicate and their desire to be thoughtful have contributed in great measure to the growth of the custom of sending greeting cards. The greeting card, like a gift, is always selected for another, never kept by the purchaser. Americans now exchange billions greeting cards annually, and the use of cards is increasing throughout the world, particularly in Europe.


Greeting cards can be traced to the written messages that accompanied New Year's gifts in Egypt six centuries before the birth of Christ. In the 2nd century A.D., commemorative medals bearing the inscription "The Senate and People of Rome Wish a Happy and Prosperous New Year to Hadrianus Augustus, the Father of the Country," appeared as another early forerunner of the greeting card.

During the Middle Ages, greeting cards of various types made their appearance in many countries. Woodcuts and engravings were popular in central Europe, and some artisans added color by hand to enhance the beauty of their efforts.


Among the most venerable of greeting cards is the valentine. According to legend, its origin was in the ancient Roman Feast of Lupercalia. In addition to the purification and fertility rites performed on this occasion, maidens fashioned love messages and deposited them in a large urn to be drawn by the men of the city, who then courted the girls whose messages they had drawn. The feast was held annually on February 15. The date of the modern celebration, February 14, is believed to derive in the execution of a Christian martyr, St. Valentine, on Feb. 14, 270. According to legend, the saint sent the blind daughter of his jailer a farewell note, which he signed "from your Valentine."

As love missives, valentines, were often elaborate, reflecting painstaking effort on the part of their senders. Such books as The Young Man's Valentine Writer, published in England in 1797, and The Quiver of Love, sold by Marcus Ward and Co. of London as late as 1876, provided verses that could be copied onto handmade valentine greetings. Valentines were first produced commercially in the United States in the 1840's; their creator, Esther A. Rowland, realized sales of $5,000 in the first year. See also saint valentine's day.

Christmas Cards

The most popular greeting card, the Christmas card, was a comparative latecomer. Generally accepted as the first Christmas card was one designed in England in 1843 by the painter John C. Horsley, who created the greeting for Sir Henry Cole. One thousand of the cards were lithographed and colored by hand. Within 20 years several British firms were publishing Christmas cards for the general public. Those early efforts were distinguished by the use of quality artwork, much of which was supplied by members of the Royal Academy.

The most popular Yuletide greetings of the late 19th century featured flowers, kittens, fairies, landscapes, and other subjects without direct Christmas connections. Many were distinguished by attachments such as tiny bells or silk fringe.

In this era, Christmas cards were published in the United States as well. Louis Prang, a German immigrant who became preeminent as a lithographer and color authority, began printing cards in Roxbury, Mass., in 1874, sending his first year's output to England and selling to the American market the following year.

Effect of Postal Systems

Contributing greatly to the growth of the greeting card custom was the evolution of universal and inexpensive postal systems in Europe and in America. It was no longer necessary, as it had been in the 15th century, for example, to depend upon a "common carrier" - a traveler or a soldier who happened to be going in the right direction - to deliver the missive. Finally, establishment of the Universal Postal Union made dispatching a greeting card or letter to any part of the world both easy and inexpensive.


To bring the public an unending variety of colorful greetings, publishers use virtually every technique of reproducing upon paper. Lithography, using as many as nine colors to achieve special effects, is the main form of reproduction. Blank embossing, steel-die engraving, silk screening, and the application of sequins, glitter, and other materials add luster to the cards. Art by Sir Winston Churchill, Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell, as well as by many of the old masters, has proved popular with card senders.


Greeting cards are produced in the United States by more than 200 publishers, from individuals who create only Christmas greetings to big firms like Hallmark Cards, Inc., of Kansas City, Mo. Hallmark who have thousands of employees worldwide, including the world's largest art department, and offers tens of thousands of new designs each year. Other important United States greeting card firms include Gibson, Norcross, and American Greetings. Several of the American companies export their cards, but differing social customs, lower price structures, and language barriers have complicated exports. Christmas cards are published in most Christian countries.

In many ways, greeting cards are a mirror of the times in which they are published, reflecting topical subjects, changing tastes, and current expressions and idioms. During the 1960's the characters of Charles Schulz' cartoon Peanuts (Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the rest) appeared on greeting cards and achieved popularity unequaled in greeting card history.

Varieties of Cards

In the United States, in addition to valentines and Christmas cards, greeting cards are available to mark most important holidays or occasions. Evolving from mythology and rites associated with Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Easter greetings are among the most popular. Cards for Mother's Day and St. Patrick's Day appeared about 1912, and Father's Day cards were popular by the 1920's. Thanksgiving, Halloween, Rosh Hashanah, and lesser events are among the holiday occasions for which special greeting cards are available.

Another important side of the greeting card industry is known to its publishers as the "everyday card" greetings for nonseasonal use. The most important of these is the birthday card. Because of the many possible kinds of approach (sentimental, witty, or humorous) and wide range of price, one major American publisher finds it necessary to maintain a line of more than 1,200 birthday cards from which customers can choose.

The difficulty of expressing one's feelings at a time of a friend's distress led to the use of cheering "get well" cards in case of illness and of sympathy cards in case of death.

Other year-round greeting card occasions include weddings and wedding anniversaries and births (both announcements and congratulations). The most popular year-round greetings, however, are friendship cards, which often take the form of little more than a cheery "hello," a printed wish in lieu of a face-to-face visit.

The popularity of friendship greetings is responsible for the phenomenal growth of "contemporary" or "studio" cards since their appearance in the mid-1950's. These occasionally zany, sometimes satirical cards always embody some offbeat humor, in step with the free, informal attitudes of the mid-20th century.

Much of the success of greeting cards can be attributed to the fact that most people find it difficult to put their feelings into words. For this reason, because the basic objective of a greeting card is to communicate, the greeting or sentiment is all-important to its success; beauty of design may cause a card to be examined in a store, but the card will not be purchased unless it says what the purchaser wants to say. Verse by such poets as Carl Sandburg, Rudyard Kipling, and Ogden Nash has been used on cards.


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