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Derek Coleman: Birthday cards a fairly new addition to written greetings

Mar. 15, 2013 @ 12:13 PM

Last week I celebrated a birthday. I use the term “celebrated” very loosely. I’m not overly fond of my own birthday although I do like other people’s celebrations. I don’t like the fuss myself, it was just another working day to me and I didn’t feel any older. What I do think is nice about birthdays, though, is hearing from old friends and family who take time out of their busy schedule to send me greetings either electronically or in the form of birthday cards.

My late Mother loved greeting cards of any sort, but especially birthday cards. She never cared much for gifts, but would read the verse in all the cards sent to her and kept those she particularly liked for many years.

Strangely enough, birthday cards are actually a fairly recent innovation in the history of written greetings, which goes back for thousands of years. The oldest known form of them are ancient Chinese written messages of good luck for the new year and early Egyptian papyrus scrolls with similar greetings on them from well before the birth of Christ.

Europe started the tradition much later but by the early 1400s, homemade paper greetings were starting to be exchanged among the wealthier people and there are woodcuts from the year 1400 in Germany that produced New Year’s greetings. Boys and girls have always found each other attractive and so naturally one of the earliest types of greeting to be sent was, of course, the Valentine. The oldest example that is still in existence is in the form of a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was a prisoner of the English. It is currently kept in the archives of the British Museum in London.

Of course, these early forms of greeting card were expensive. They had to be hand made, hand written and hand delivered but by the mid 19th century advances in printing, the development of machinery to mass produce them and the introduction of a cheap postal service with the advent of the postage stamp meant that greeting cards became much more readily available to the masses. The first commercial Christmas card was produced in 1843 in London for Sir Henry Cole, who commissioned John Calcott Horsley, an artist, to produce a card which he then sent to his family and friends. By 1860, Marcus Ward and Company as well as several other manufacturers were commercially printing greeting cards in large numbers.

As I said earlier, birthday cards are fairly new to the greeting card scene. Medieval tradition in England was that on their birthday people would be extra susceptible to the attentions of evil spirits so friends and family would gather with the person whose birthday it was in order to ensure that their good thoughts and happiness could ward off these entities. As time went by people who could not attend the birthday celebration would send a hand written card apologizing for not being there. This developed into the modern birthday greeting card.

The first known birthday cards were sent more than a hundred years ago in England. This was the Victorian era, they were too polite back then to mention the recipient’s age and the cards did not contain a verse, instead the sender would add a short note of their own to express their good wishes. From these humble beginnings a huge industry has grown.

Today of course greeting cards are not always as polite as those sent by our forebears but they are far more readily available. They may be funny, sweet, witty, thoughtful or downright rude and I guess one of the biggest names in the greeting cards industry is Hallmark. Their story began when a postcard salesman stopped by the family general store in Nebraska and convinced Joyce Clyde Hall to sell postcards. That was back in 1906. Nine years later the company was called Hall Brothers and they sold Valentine and Christmas cards. Now they employ more than 18,000 people in a world wide industry, have their headquarters in Kansas City and last year sold more birthday cards than greetings for all other holidays and occasions combined. These sales included 85,000 100th birthday greetings cards.

In this new age of technology, there is a growing trend to use other ways of sending birthday greetings and it remains to be seen how these will affect the card market. I received a couple of electronic cards myself together with many Facebook greetings, all of which were very welcome although I guess I have my Mother’s genes and I still like the old fashioned way best. My family obviously knows this, they gave me some great cards as well as awesomely generous gifts for which I would like to thank Lori, the children, her parents, Louise and Sam. You were all too kind. Thank you.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.