If you have an occasion—any occasion—there’s a greeting card for it. Christmas? Greeting card. Birthday? Greeting card. Graduation? Greeting card. Chapter 9 on your home loan… okay. There may not be an appropriate greeting card for every occasion under the sun, but it’s pretty darn close. It’s no secret that Hallmark pioneered the practice (and co-opted a number of holidays) to transform itself into a commercial smörgåsbord for the greeting-card frenzy, but they didn’t invent the practice.
Congratulations on ending the warring states period!
The earliest traces of seasonal card exchange extend all the way back to ancient China. Chinese legend told of a wild beast that would attack and kill villagers at the end of each year, but the beast could be warded off with messages of goodwill. This is not a joke.
Descriptions of the beast known as “Nian” vary by oral tradition, though they generally include sharp teeth and horns. It is thought that the lion dance of Chinese New Year celebrations is inspired by a tale of Nian’s attack on a village. So, there you have it. Greeting cards are actually an ancient form of life insurance.
From the pyramids to the printing press
Preceding the Chinese, Ancient Egyptians were sending messages on papyrus scrolls, which would sometimes involve seasonal greetings. However, the practice more closely resembling modern traditions started around the 15th century when Europeans sent handmade paper cards around the holidays. By the 1400s, Germans were printing New Year’s greetings with woodcuts and handmade valentines made their rounds among lovers.
Stationary and prints were expensive commodities at this point in human history, which made greeting cards a pricey and personal exchange. It wasn’t until the innovations of the industrial revolution when mailing cards would become an accessible practice in larger society. The advent of the printing press, mechanization, and postage stamps made the custom affordable, and in 1843, Sir Henry Cole hired John Calott Horsely to design a holiday card to be sent to his friends.
In the 1860s, publishing companies began to mass produce greeting cards in a form similar to what we recognize today. These cards were mailed with attached postage but could not be sent without standardized envelopes and stamps. Because of this, they were not technically “postcards” but, rather, “mailed cards.”
One card to rule them all
In 1886, U.S. Congress passed a law that allowed privately printed cards to be sent in the mail. The mass production eventually led to the postcard craze. By the early 20th century in America, billions of postcards were being exchanged and stowed away as keepsakes, with Christmas being the most popular occasion for postcard exchange. It was around 1907 when two brothers working out of a bookstore in Nebraska started the Norfolk Post Card Company.
William and Rollie Hall continued their family-run business with innovations over the years that included custom wrapping paper to replace the previously-used plain tissue paper and expanding postcards from rare occasion to everyday events. In 1928, the company, now headquartered in Kansas, was rebranded under the title of Hallmark.
With the advent of popular and affordable greeting cards, lucrative businesses fueled the continued mass production of cards. The business surrounding greeting cards also led to mass production of Christmas ornaments, fancy stationary, and the profound spectacle surrounding many of the holidays that we’ve come to know and love.
Though the modern age saw the advent of the free e-cards, many people still prefer birthday cards and Christmas cards in their traditional paper form. And so, on that note, congratulations on your newfound knowledge of the history of your local grocery store’s most colorful aisle of yearly obligations.