The history of greeting cards

Despite the rise of online platforms and electronic messaging, the sending of printed greeting cards for birthdays, religious occasions, anniversaries, sympathy occasions, and of course the ever-popular Valentine’s day still fuels the sale of billions of cards each year. When did this tradition of sending cards start, and can they really keep ancient villager-gobbling monsters away?

Did you know?        More than 80% of all greeting cards are purchased by                                                     women.

The sending of special cards is actually almost as old as the story of paper itself. While there is some debate as to whether the Ancient Chinese or Egyptians got there first, cards from each civilisation still remain today.

The origin of the Chinese New Year celebrations dates back to around 3000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty. It was believed that a bloodthirsty creature named Nian (which now gives its name to the Chinese word for ‘year’) would prey on villages during the New Year celebrations of the spring planting season. This beast could be deterred by decorating homes with red trimmings and ornaments – and it soon became tradition for villagers to give each other cards for good luck at this time.

nian greeting cards south africa

Another tradition which arose was the giving of Hongbao – red packets or envelopes with gift money inside, symbolizing luck and wealth. The gift money – called Ya Sui Qian – cannot be refused and was thought to stop children from getting older! Billions of these red envelopes are given today by older generations to younger ones – such as grandparents to their grandchildren and commonly as a kind of New Year’s bonus from employers to their workers.

money envelope red buy greeting cards handmade

Like the Chinese, the ancient Egyptians also sent greeting cards to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck at the new year, such as this ancient papyrus card from Egypt:

ancient egypt greeting card cape town

As a large supplier of papyrus to Ancient Greece, this tradition also passed across these cultures westwards. While papermaking processes were becoming more advanced, greeting cards still had to be made by hand and for many centuries were reserved for the elite in society. In the 15th century, the first woodcut New Year’s greetings appeared in Germany:

german woodcut hand designed greeting cards buy online

This card would have been stamped from a woodcutting and then coloured by hand.

It would not be until the 19th century invention of the printing press that greeting cards made their way into mainstream society. Sir Henry Cole, the inventor of the stamp, created the first commercial greeting card – this Victorian England Christmas card from the 1840’s:

first christmas card

Valentine’s Day cards also became popular amongst the wealthy, but were still individually or handmade:

esther howland first valentines card

A  Valentine’s card from 1870 – still reserved for the wealthy and elite:

ancient valentines day cards south africa

It was not until another German – a successful immigrant living in Boston, named Louis Prang – used the technique of chromolithography to reproduce art works and greeting cards, that factory production of greeting cards became more commonplace. Louis Prang is often referred to as the ‘Father of the American Christmas Card’. However, these were cards printed onto one piece of card like a postcard, and not the more private folded card that we find for sale today.


It took one very tenacious young entrepreneur named Joyce Hall to take that final step. As a penniless 18-year-old in Kansas, he began his career armed only with two shoeboxes of Louis Prang’s picture postcards for sale. He soon became well-known for selling these cards, and was joined by his brother Rollie, starting a company called the Hall Brothers. Despite setbacks including a fire which wiped out all their stock, they kept at it, and with the idea that people would prefer a more private way of sending their personal messages, they invested in a printing press in 1915 which would lead them to create one of the world’s most successful business ventures – Hallmark Cards.

hallmark cards display birthday cards cape town

They used visual display cases to allow easier shopping for cards. Interestingly, they also accidentally ‘invented’ gift wrapping paper when they ran out of solid coloured paper and had to resort to the decorative inner linings of French envelopes!
A changing industry:

Now, with electronic cards being the most inexpensive way of sending greetings, a new change is occurring in the greeting cards industry – and while billions of paper cards are still sold each year, sales of mass produced cards are slowly but steadily beginning to decline. The handwritten greeting card can now perhaps take its rightful place as the special, thoughtful and individualised message that it best conveys. In fact in a world of fast-paced information overload, receiving a handwritten greeting card sent by snail mail or delivered by hand makes your message that bit more special.

Our range of greetings cards are all based on hand drawings by local artist and Yoga teacher Marjolein Gamble, and printed on recycled card to support the local paper recycling industry.


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