The Origin and Continuation of the Greeting Card

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  • Topic: Greeting card, Christmas card, Christmas
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  • Published : September 28, 2008
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The Origin and Continuation of the Greeting Card
The perfect words, the right sentiments, the ability to say exactly what we ourselves can’t: just a few ways greeting cards are defined. Greeting cards, the stars of today, started with a humble beginning. The custom of sending greeting cards can be traced back to the ancient Chinese, who exchanged messages of good will to celebrate the New Year, and to the early Egyptians, who conveyed their greetings on papyrus scrolls. By the early 1400s, handmade paper greeting cards were being exchanged in Europe. The Germans are known to have printed New Year’s greetings from woodcuts as early as 1400, and handmade paper Valentines were being exchanged in various parts of Europe in the early to mid-1400s. The first holiday greeting cards were probably the “Christmas Pieces” made by students in the early 18th century. Grade-school students would take large sheets of writing paper, printed with engraved borders, and write messages to their parents expressing holiday greetings. A child might write a message such as “Love to Dearest Mummy at the Christmas Season” or “Holiday Wishes to Aunt Agatha and Uncle Fred.” These samplers were designed to show their parents how well their handwriting improved over the past year. The first Christmas card came about at nearly the same time as the first Valentine's Day card. In 1844, W. C. T. Dobson sent out a hand-drawn sketch as a Christmas greeting, instead of his usual Christmas letter. Dobson was the head of the Birmingham School of Design, and many followed his lead developing what is now known as a Christmas Card. Leaflets expressing good wishes first appeared at the beginning of the fifteenth century and are the ancestors of modern greeting cards. These were followed by eighteenth century print versions which merchants sent their customers on New Year's. “The greeting cards we exchange at Christmas or New Year's and are so much a part of our holiday traditions have their origins in England. By the late middle ages, letters and messages of love, including romantic verses sent near St. Valentine's Day, were exchanged throughout Europe. Personal messages of greeting and sentiment were individually crafted until at least the mid-nineteenth century. The custom of multiple card production quickly developed in Europe, especially in Germany, because of a brand-new printing process perfected by Aloys Senefelder in 1796. Lithography, as the technique was called, could be used to reproduce large numbers of drawings or texts first drawn on a finely-textured stone.” (Bell) Although the first known valentine card can be traced back to 1415, it wasn’t until the early 1800s and the Penny Post that they became popular and affordable. Esther Howland, a young woman from Massachusetts, was the first regular publisher of valentines in the United States. She sold her first handmade valentine in 1849, eventually establishing a successful publishing firm specializing in the elaborately decorated cards.

A respected illustrator of the day, London artist John Calcott Horsley told Sir Henry Cole, a wealthy British businessman, he wanted a card he could proudly send to friends and professional acquaintances to wish them a "merry Christmas." Cole was, at that time, a prominent innovator. He modernized the British postal system, managed construction of the Albert Hall, arranged for the Great Exhibition in 1851, and oversaw the inauguration of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Most of all, Cole sought to "beautify life," and in his spare time he ran an art shop on Bond Street, specializing in decorative objects for the home. In the summer of 1843, he commissioned Horsley to design an impressive card for that year’s Christmas. Horsley produced a triptych. Each of the two side panels depicted a good deed-clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. The centerpiece featured a party of adults and children, with plentiful food and drink. Puritans immediately denounced the card,...
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