You may not realize this, but every time you send a greeting card you’re continuing a centuries-old tradition that dates back to the ancient Chinese! It was traditional (and still is) to exchange New Year greetings with paper messages, often decorated ornately and made of exquisite handmade and hand painted papers. The ancient Egyptians also exchanged written greetings on papyrus scrolls!
Greeting cards became a tradition in European cultures as early as the 1400s, when handmade paper cards printed with woodcuts or illustrated by hand were exchanged for various events. These ornate one-of-a-kind missives were regarded as gifts in their own right! Paper Valentines date back to this era. However, these early greeting cards were not accessible to the masses the way cards are today. Not only could most people not read or write, but the handmade, hand-decorated cards were too expensive for even literate commoners to send.
The invention of the printing press and the automation introduced by the Industrial Revolution changed all that. Printed greeting cards were commonplace by the mid-1800s, and the first commercially printed Christmas card appeared in London in 1843 when Sir Henry Cole commissioned a holiday card from John Calcott Horsley.
Mass produced greeting cards like we see today were introduced in the late 1800s, when stationery companies hired popular artists of the day to design and illustrate their cards. Sending cards to friends and family for major holidays and personal events started to become the widespread tradition it is today. Over the years since then, advances in the printing industry have helped the growth of the greeting card tradition, as color printing became more efficient and cost-effective.
Today, of course, it is almost a requirement to send out holiday cards at least once a year (during the Winter holiday season), and you can find pre-printed cards for almost any occasion or purpose (even some you never imagined might exist). Photographic technology has made Christmas photo cards a popular annual tradition with many families, and home computers with affordable desktop publishing software helped make the annual family newsletter almost as ubiquitous (and controversial) as fruitcake.