Greetings
A Very British Tradition

Preface

The journey of a true gift begins in the heart. A beat, an impulse to fill the space between two people with a physical manifestation of how they feel. A gift is a symbol of this impulse wrapped in layers of tradition and intention.



Words: Michelle Porter

This Christmas it is estimated that the British public will give 900 million greeting cards to their friends and loved ones. Despite the rise in e-cards and instant messaging, sending a greeting card remains as popular as ever. They are so embedded in British culture, we are astonished to discover that it is not customary worldwide to line up your birthday cards on the mantelpiece or buy a card when popping out for a pint of milk. Although countries ranging from India to Germany also send cards, none make such a display of their birthday cards in the lounge as we do, whilst very few have dedicated shops and such a variety of outlets selling cards. What is it about the humble greeting card that has led it to be the forerunner in keeping the spirit of print alive, and why is the British public so in love with sending them?

Greeting cards are nothing new. People from all over the world have been crafting their own paper creations for centuries. The ancient Egyptians used papyrus, 15th Century Europeans used woodcut printing methods and Victorian ladies adorned their cards with lace and embroidery. Making cards was a skilled and luxurious labour of love, a niche activity for those with time on their hands to indulge in it. But the origins of the greeting card began with Henry Cole and the story of British artistic traditions and postal service he helped to establish. He was reported to have declared that his mission was “to beautify life” and whether this is true or not, his involvement in the arts has left a legacy enjoyed by people the world over.

Greeting cards are nothing new. People from all over the world have been crafting their own paper creations for centuries. The ancient Egyptians used papyrus, 15th Century Europeans used woodcut printing methods and Victorian ladies adorned their cards with lace and embroidery. Making cards was a skilled and luxurious labour of love, a niche activity for those with time on their hands to indulge in it. But the origins of the greeting card began with Henry Cole and the story of British artistic traditions and postal service he helped to establish. He was reported to have declared that his mission was “to beautify life” and whether this is true or not, his involvement in the arts has left a legacy enjoyed by people the world over.

Inspired by his love of the printed form, he commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to produce one of the first commercial greeting cards. They produced 1000 lithographic copies of the triptych card, each one coloured by hand. It wasn't the most attractive card ever made, but it did cause controversy, upsetting the temperance movement with its depiction of small children drinking wine. Henry Cole was a man who was passionate about British art and culture, a driving force behind the Great Exhibition, The Royal Albert Hall and the V&A Museum. But perhaps his most enduring contribution to our insatiable appetite for sending cards was his work in helping to establish the Penny Post and the reform of the postal service.

It is impossible for a British person to separate the greeting card from the post box – dipping your hand into pillar box red, clutching a Valentine's card, walking to the end of the street in your winter coat to post a letter to Father Christmas. Even schools have their own handcrafted post boxes for Christmas and Valentine's day. Homemade boxes covered in red paper for the posting of tiny envelopes addressed to their friends, as though we are training children in the art of sending greeting as part of the national curriculum. Since the Victorian era, most of our best wishes, congratulations, condolences and Happy Birthdays have been sent through the post. The history of the British Greeting card has been shaped by our beloved Royal Mail. In 1840, Henry Cole helped Rowland Hill to establish the Penny Post which made sending cards not only viable but helped the greeting card industry become a commercial success. Before the introduction of the penny black stamp, post was paid for by the recipient, which meant that the poor couldn't receive letters or cards. Rowland Hill was inspired to reform the postal system when he witnessed a distressed young woman on her doorstep, too poor to receive a letter from her lover. Not only did the post become more efficient, it became fairer, as sending and receiving notes of happiness and comfort was opened up to all.

The British tradition of sending cards continued to thrive into the twentieth century and the postal service was vital in helping us to support each other in times of need. During WW1 soldiers embroidered cards to be sent home from the front line and, due to censorship, the care and love put into the card designs expressed the feelings that they themselves may not have been able to write in letters. These cards still exist and have been preserved and treasured by their families, even when other memorabilia has been lost. They are touching and poignant even for us today, but the intense emotion these creations must have inspired in the intended recipient perfectly capture the simple yet incredible power of a greeting card. This emotional power endures today, despite our over – reliance on digital media. Sharon Little from the Greeting Card Association explains that: "It’s been scientifically proven that receiving cards makes people feel far more special and cared for than any kind of e-communication including texts, social media messages or e-cards."

In the same way that digital reading devices have not replaced books, it is the tactile nature of cards that warms the heart, people still love print and the feel of paper in their hands. Foiled, letterpress printed, blind debossed, die-stamped and biodegradable – the quality and variety of our cards is full of artistry and craftsmanship. In some parts of Britain, the greeting card business has replaced heavy industry and throughout the country thousands of artists, designers, typesetters, writers and printers are employed to keep it the most innovative in the world. Over 40% of greeting card companies are smaller independents, leading to the production of highly creative cards produced with traditional, high-quality production values. Charlie Cumming from Meticulous Ink explains that in recent years,

The history of greeting cards has come full circle. Although not always handmade, people are sending more quality cards – printed on quality papers, designed by respected artists and designers. The value of sales has gone up and people are increasingly looking for something unique and beautifully made. If it is humanly possible, cards are becoming even more desirable in this digital age. This is borne out by the continued international success of companies like Smythson of Bond St. Established in 1887 just 40 years after the first Christmas card was produced by Henry Cole, they attribute their continued success to creating 'A world where our craft meets your story'.

One hundred years have passed since soldiers sent cards from the Somme but despite the rise of instant messaging, social media, and the E-card, the humble greeting card is still keeping the spirit of print alive. As Sharon Little explains, "We don't write many letters anymore – so it’s actually cards that are the last bastion of handwriting." The V&A, which Henry Cole founded, now stocks hundreds of cards, greeting cards are still beautifying life, both visually and emotionally. We remain strongly attracted to the greeting card to provide that special human touch. To understand the British relationship with the greeting card you have to understand that it is historical, traditional and, above all, emotional. Like a private joke or a comforting squeeze of the shoulder, it is a simple way of expressing a myriad of different emotions. We may be accused of having a stiff upper lip, but we wear our hearts on our sheaths of paper and love cards with a saucy joke.

Connor McNally

Author: Connor McNally

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