Every year, Americans purchase more than more than a billion greeting cards wishing someone a happy holiday season. While trees might not be all that merry about all this sentiment, the act of giving and receiving celebratory cards has become an ingrained ritual of the holidays. Check out some facts on the history of the tradition, from the Middle Ages to today.
1. THEY USED TO BE A STATUS SYMBOL.
Initially in circulation among the wealthy, greeting—or “visiting” cards—were doled out in the Middle Ages in Austria and France for New Year’s Day. In Vienna, the number of cards received was a sign of one’s popularity. To help pile up the points, servants were hired to distribute cards from door-to-door rather than waste time with a personal touch.
2. HAVING TOO MANY FRIENDS LED TO THE FIRST CHRISTMAS CARD ...
Victoria and Albert Museum founder Henry Cole was suffering from a seasonal kind of madness in 1843: Thanks to more efficient, inexpensive postal delivery methods in London, Cole received stacks of holiday well-wishes from friends and colleagues. Because it was considered highly impolite to ignore them, he needed an equally efficient way of acknowledging them. Cole commissioned a 3.75-inch by 5-inch lithograph card with an illustration and had 1000 of them printed. Cole took care of his correspondence—he only had to fill in a name—and sold off the remainder, putting in circulation the first Christmas card.
3. … BUT IT WASN’T WELL-RECEIVED.
Christmas cards didn’t really take off until roughly 20 years after Cole’s attempt, and for good reason. For one, the surplus he sold off cost a shilling each, which was roughly a day’s wage for workers of the era. Additionally, the illustration he commissioned depicted what appears to be children guzzling wine. By Victorian standards, inebriated tots were a no-no. Later, alcohol-free cards proved popular among all classes of British citizens.
4. THE FIRST AMERICAN CARD WAS REALLY A COMMERCIAL AD.
The holidays have always struggled to balance genuine sentiment with commercial exploitation, so perhaps it’s fitting the very first Christmas card made in the U.S. was a mini-billboard for a department store. Issued between 1850 and 1852, the card’s seasonal illustrations were buttoned by a mention of Pease’s, a “general variety” store in Albany, New York. (Ten years prior, the store’s proprietor, Richard Pease, is believed to have made the first use of Santa Claus in a newspaper ad.)
5. HOLIDAY CARDS WEREN’T ALWAYS THAT MERRY.
While Pease was the first, it was printer Louis Prang who really popularized the holiday greeting. Using cheaper lithographing techniques and motivated by inexpensive mail delivery, his company was printing 5 million cards a year by 1881. Unlike the snow-drenched cards of today, Prang’s early illustrations were usually focused on flowers and birds [PDF].
6. HALLMARK INVENTED THE FOLDED CARD.
By the early 20th century, holiday greetings were still of the postcard-type variety. The Hall Brothers, who founded what would later be known as Hallmark in 1910, began issuing cards that were folded down the middle and stuffed into envelopes. The reason? People were having a hard time expressing all of their thoughts on the relatively small cards from other manufacturers. Hallmark virtually doubled the writing real estate, and soon became synonymous with the holiday market.
7. THEY ALSO MADE IT EASIER TO BROWSE.
The single most pervasive image of the holiday season might be the sight of a shopper staring silently at a wall of greeting cards, hoping to choose the most appropriate expression of holiday cheer. Prior to Hallmark, that task was a lot more formidable: Cards were kept in drawers, making selection a drawn-out process. In 1932, the company introduced what it called “Eye-Vision” displays, a patented method of front-facing shelving that allowed customers to quickly scan rows of cards.
8. THERE’S BEEN A STEEP DECLINE IN ANALOG GREETINGS.
According to the U.S. Postal Service, holiday greeting cards have experienced a steep drop-off in circulation in recent years, falling from approximately 1.9 billion in 2012 to 1.4 billion in 2014 [PDF]. The mail service believes the rise of social media and the ease in which people can send personalized virtual greetings has contributed to the decline.
9. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS CEREMONY.
Named after greeting-card godfather Louis Prang, the Louie Awards are the Oscars of the card industry and are given out every May at the National Stationery Show in recognition of cards with maximum design excellence, emotional impact, and “sendability.”
10. THERE’S AN ALL-TIME BEST SELLER.
According to Hallmark, a simple image of three angels—one looking at the reader, the other two praying—that adorned a 1977 release has gone on to become the single most popular card of all time, selling more than 34 million copies.