The History and Traditions of Birthday Cards

imagesThese days, you can walk into any convenience store and find cards with a pithy birthday quotes while you’re filling your car up with gas. Greeting cards are everywhere – grocery stores, pharmacies, gift shops. And, whether it’s a birthday card, Valentine’s Day card or just a ‘Thinking of You’ card, if you forget to pick one up, you can even find one online and send it in an email. But it hasn’t always been this easy to find a birthday card.

The tradition of sending greeting cards can be traced all the way back to the ancient Chinese who sent messages to celebrate the New Year. The early Egyptians sent their greetings on papyrus scrolls. And by the early 15th Century, Europeans were sending out hand-made paper cards.

But until the mid 1800s, greeting cards were only available in America via import from England. In 1856 German immigrant Louis Prang opened the first small printing shop in Boston and in 1875 he finally perfected his process and began producing greeting cards. By 1881, Prang, ‘The Father of the American Greeting Card,” was producing more than 5 million cards each year. His success was a major contribution to the success of the modern greeting card industry.

Most of the major greeting card companies we have today were founded the early 1900s and the business really took off in the early 1930s when newer color printing processes were developed. Greeting cards at this time covered the basic holidays – Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and birthday – and it wasn’t until the 1950s when more general purpose cards were introduced.

Now, you can find greeting cards to cover almost every holiday including Halloween and Easter, cards to express sympathy or condolences, to offer congratulations, to wish someone a speedy recovery or a long and happy married life, and a wide variety of general messages. And you can even get blank greeting cards so you can pen your own message.

But the most popular greeting card of all is still the birthday card. It’s estimated that they account for more than 60% of all greeting card sales.

Originally, people wished each other well on birthdays to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that it was easier for evil spirits to harm a person on their birthday and one way to prevent it from happening was to gather together and have a party, offering up well wishes for the person’s future. This is how birthday parties began and, as society became more mobile, it became necessary to send your well wishes in a letter or card, since it wasn’t always possible to get together and celebrate.

Today, though, we not only send birthday cards to people who are far away, we also personally hand them to friends and loved ones, just to brighten their day. We rarely worry about those nasty evil spirits doing harm to our loved ones. In fact, we worry more about our loved ones doing harm to us if we forget to send them a card. Maybe that’s why someone came up with the idea of the Belated Birthday Card.

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