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The history of greeting cards

Who doesn’t love getting a greeting card? In the opinion of grandmas everywhere (and they know what’s important) a thoughtful sentence scribbled on a well-chosen card trumps a fancy present every time. A greeting card from a loved one takes pride of place on the mantelpiece and every time you look at it, it gives you that warm fuzzy feeling on knowing someone out there cares. It’s no wonder that sending greeting cards has grown from the habits of the elite few to the multi-billion-pound industry it is today.



Exchanging written greetings goes back to the origins of writing itself. In ancient Egypt, Pharaohs conveyed sentiments on papyrus scrolls, and good wishes for the New Year were swapped in the court of ancient Chinese emperors, to help ward off a legendary monster called Nien.

In the Middle Ages, the irresistible force of romantic love compelled the well-to-in Europe to woo the objects of their desire with Valentine cards and marriage proposals. These greeting cards took the form of elaborate handmade artworks. Fancy cards were also used to celebrate other saint’s days and birthdays.  Those clever German print pioneers were also producing New Year cards using ink on woodcuts from the early 1400s.

Back in those days there was no postal service as such. If you wanted to send a card any distance you’d have to put the feelers out to see if a merchant or traveller was heading that way, or enlist a courier or one of your servants. This highly unreliable and super expensive mode of delivering greeting cards meant that only the rich and famous could get involved.

However, in 1840, everything changed with the introduction of the postage stamp. Suddenly affordable posting opened the floodgates for more people to show they cared with a printed greeting card. Three years later, Sir Henry Cole, an eminent civil servant, art patron and educator, was wrangling with the problem of how to tackle his unfeasibly long Christmas card list, when he wanted to spend his time helping the poor. So he commissioned his friend John Callcott Horsley, who came up with a design a showing a Victorian family eating and drinking a toast to Christmas and New Year, flanked by scenes of festive charity.

A thousand of the cards were printed lithographically in black and white, then coloured by hand, kicking off the craze for mass-produced Christmas cards. The modern annual awards ceremony for the greeting cards industry is named “The Henries” in honour of Sir Henry Cole, and today, charities estimate that £50m is raised for good causes through the sales of charity Christmas cards each year.

By 1870, greeting card printing had taken off, and hundreds of European manufacturers were producing cards to sell at home and in the US. Then a German immigrant to Boston called Louis Prang kick-started the commercial greeting card industry in the States with his high quality colour lithographic reproductions. He even started exporting them to England.

The story of American business giant Hallmark Cards started in Nebraska in the early 1900s when brothers Joyce, Rollie, and William Hall began selling postcards. They recognized that people wanted more privacy for their written greetings and started making cards to be mailed in envelopes. Hallmark’s famous slogan, “When you care enough for the very best,” was created in 1944 by a salesman who scribbled it on a cocktail napkin at a meeting. This is now on display at the HQ of the multi-billion dollar firm.

Greeting cards have been a nice earner, not just for big corporations, but for many independent artists since the late 19th century. In 1890. A young talent called Beatrix Potter found her first commercial success as an artist with the creation six designs for greeting cards using her rabbit Bounce as a model. She was paid six pounds for the lot, and Bounce got a cupful of hemp seed. Since then, many creative types have found an income stream by designing eye-catching greeting cards.

According to the Greeting Card Association Market Report 2013, the UK alone spends £1.37 billion on cards in a year. And the range of designs has never been wider, from retro photography to knitted animals, fine art cards to silly humour. People send cards for every occasion: Easter, Mother’s day, cultural events like Diwali and Eid, to celebrate passing your driving test or even getting divorced. And, just like the rich merchants of medieval Europe, with’s personalized greeting cards, you can have any design you want – on fine paper and in fancy envelopes if you so desire. Inspired? Check out the options on our online greeting cards and start creating your irresistible designs or check the latest Greeting Cards trends here.


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About the author

Bex is our Senior Content Manager and lover of all things community. When she's not glued to her phone you can find her out cycling in the Chiltern Hills or braving the London commute on her Brompton.

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