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A Brief History of Greeting Card


The communication between humans took place first via gestures, then via speech and later via writing. Writing enabled the communication to trespass the barriers of time and place. Information could then be transferred to receivers coming later or located far away from the source, leading to a vast increase of the communication radius. The history of greeting cards dates back to the old Chinese and Egyptian civilizations thousands of years ago, where messages of fortune, goodwill and greeting were conveyed on papyrus scrolls and exchanged for celebrating events.Neujahrskarte.jpg

Later in the Medieval Times only the clergy were capable of writing and reading and letters were delivered by messengers, merchants, friends, etc. Europeans caught on to the ancient form of social expression in the early 1400s with handmade paper greeting cards. New Year's greetings were printed from woodcuts in Germany and handmade paper Valentines were exchanged in Europe in the early 1400s. As European greeting cards were extremely expensive only the wealthy could partake in their exchange.
(Right above and middle: New Year cards of about 1450) 

With Gutenberg's printing technique in the Renaissance the royalty and gentry in France and Austria began to print visiting cards in order to hand them out at their visits. These cards became later very popular. On the New Year's day, they labeled their visiting cards with a greeting, signed them and sent them via servants to their friends, partners and customers. In the 17th century licensed postal lines offering regular services emerged and replaced gradually the personal delivery. At that time letters were folded and sealed before VilGutIar.jpgsending. The envelope appeared later in the 18th century.

The introduction of the postage stamp in 1840 and new advances in commercial printing increased the popularity of the greeting card. What was earlier an exclusive, expensive, handmade and personally-delivered gift became an effective and affordable means of communication and allowed a broad band of people to exchange greeting cards. (Right, third from above: The first stamp "Black Penny", 1840)  

In 19th century visiting relatives, friends, and acquaintances became a middle and upper class social ritual governed by countless rules and traditions. Central to the visiting etiquette was the visiting card. The gentleman kept a  deck of visiting cards with him to hand out upon his visit. When calling upon a friend he first reached his card to the servant at the entrance who carried it on a silver tray to his Lord. Generally upon a gentleman's initial visit, he would leave a card before departure. If the new acquaintance wished to formally PennyBlack.jpgmeet him, he/she would send a card in return. If no card was sent or the return card was sent in an envelope, the new acquaintance did not wish a personal visit. To the unrefined and underbred, the visiting card may be just a trifling bit of paper; but to the cultured masters of social etiquette, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its form, texture, style of engraving, and even the way of its submitting combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a noble attitude. In the 19th century social interactions were a richly cultivated and well-mannered affair. The tool that facilitated these interactions was the visiting card which streamlined introductions and helped remind people of new acquaintances and needed visits. 
Also birthdays are celebrated only since 19th century. Before that, only the high gentry knew about the date when they were born. The birth certificate was introduced by Napoleon's Code Civil in about 1800. The economic boom of 1850s enabled also the lower classes to send greetings such that the demand for short and open (without envelope) messages increased. The concept of an open correspondence card with a printed stamp on it was proposed by the Prussian post councillor  Heinrich Stephan, at the Post Conference in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1865. 4 years later the idea was realized in Austria.
With the rising demand for cards manufacturers began to employ professional artists and create high-quality products for both the elite and the lower classes. However the mass production did not result in the decrease of the quality of elaborate cards. The Victorian era created some very ornate and intricate designs. The competition due to the increasing number of publishers generated more and more advances in printing methods, decorative treatments and artistic techniques. The great boom came in the 1890s with the use of multi-color chromolithography. It initiated the splendid era of card writing and card collecting (deltiology) which became en vogue between 1895 and the World War I (1914) with numerous clubs and magazines emerging. Deltiology is regarded as one of the three largest collectable hobbies in the world along with coin and stamp collecting. Postcards are such popular because of the wide range of subjects portrayed on them. The history itself can be tracked on them. This creative boom declined with the outbreak of the War with impacts on the variety and quality of cards due to the lack of materials and qualified personnel. But the demand for cards did not suffer. New patriotic themes appeared on cards: Flags, slogans, soldiers, emperors, generals, battle scenes, etc. But with deteriorating quality collectors lost gradually their interest at cards.                             

ChristmasCard.jpg In the 1930s the color lithography fueled  a new continuous expansion in the industry and the design diversity  increased due to new production methods: Cards with delicate fragrance, with sound, with variable image changing by rotation or pulling, etc. appeared on the market. Greeting messages were combined with corresponding images: Beautiful women, love pairs, nice landscapes, cute animals, portraits of celebrities, spectacular machines, great thinkers, etc. There was no theme that did not appear on cards. (Right: The first Christmas card, 1843)   

A new collection Renaissance emerged with the nostalgic movements of 1970s when cards were regarded as a panoramic kaleidoscope of the cultural and historic developments of the society and as a snapshot of the collective memory: They illustrated the old city architectures, living styles, vehicles, cafes, taste of time, etc.

Humorous greeting cards became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s. Cards for a wide range of events and holidays as well as "non-occasion" cards as casual reminder, showed up in the 1980s. Their popularity continues to swell. However there is no need for a specific reason to send a greeting card. That is the beauty of it. It depicts an elaborate social expression and an artwork, which - as a personal gift - guarantees the attention of the presentee. Its attractiveness even increased with the rise of electronic communications and Internet.

Nowadays a personal classical document written by hand on fine paper and decorated with an exquisite artwork is a distinguishing mark of nobility, intellectuality and aesthetic cultivation.

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