Greeting card industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The exchange of greeting cards for holidays, birthdays, and other occasions helps to promote retail sales of gift items, and greeting cards themselves have become an important industry. The greeting card industry has become a multibillion-dollar industry, helped by an explosive growth in electronic technology and burgeoning consumer use of the Internet.

The exchange of greeting cards is one of the oldest and most widely accepted holiday customs in the United States. The custom of sending greeting cards can be traced back to the ancient Chinese, who exchanged messages of goodwill to celebrate the New Year, and to the early Egyptians, who conveyed their greetings on papyrus scrolls. By the early fifteenth century, handmade paper greeting cards were being exchanged in Europe. The Germans are known to have printed New Year’s greetings from woodcuts as early as 1400, and handmade paper Valentine’s Day cards were being exchanged in various parts of Europe during the early to mid-fifteenth century.Greeting card industry

From the mid-nineteenth century through much of the twentieth century, Holidays, retailingmost cards published in the United States were designed to celebrate Christmas and other religious holidays, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, births, and other family events. By the early twenty-first century, however, cards were being published for virtually every imaginable occasion or relationship and were being sold through approximately 100,000 retail outlets around the United States. Greeting cards are especially popular in the United Kingdom, where the average person purchases fifty-five cards per year.

The greeting card industry started as a traditional printing and stationery business during the nineteenth century. The first modern greeting card was actually for Christmas, retailingChristmas; it appeared in London in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole hired artist John C. Horsley to design a holiday card that he could send to his friends and acquaintances. Although the first known greeting card, a Valentine’s Dayvalentine, can be traced back to 1415, it was not until the early nineteenth century and the easy availability of the mail that the buying and sending of greeting cards became popular and affordable. Esther Howland, EstherHowland, from Massachusetts, was the first regular publisher of Valentine’s Day cards in the United States. She sold her first handmade Valentine’s Day card in 1849, eventually establishing a successful publishing firm specializing in the elaborately decorated cards. Between 1855 and 1879, Howland’s Valentine’s Day cards were one of the most immediately recognized commercially produced symbols and later became highly prized collector’s items.

Rise of the Commercial Industry

By the 1850’s, the greeting card had been transformed from a relatively expensive, handmade, and hand-delivered gift to a popular and affordable means of personal communication, largely because of advances in printing and mechanization, as well as the 1840 introduction of the postage stamp. However, Louis Prang, LouisPrang, a German immigrant who started a small lithographic business near Boston in 1856, is generally credited with the start of the greeting card industry in the United States. Within ten years, he perfected the color lithographic process; his reproductions of great paintings surpassed those of other graphic artists in both the United States and Great Britain. During the early 1870’s, Prang began publishing deluxe editions of Christmas cards, and in 1875, he introduced the first complete line of Christmas cards to the American public. Prang’s cards reached the height of their popularity during the early 1890’s, when cheap imitative imports began to flood the market. Between 1890 and 1906, there was a marked decline in U.S. greeting card production, but the domestic business climate for greeting cards soon improved. During this time, a number of the industry’s leading publishers were founded. Most of the cards by these fledgling U.S. publishers bore little relation to Prang’s elaborate creations. By the early twenty-first century, two American card manufacturers, Hallmark Cards and American Greetings, had become the largest producers of greeting cards in the world.

World War II and Beyond

During World War II, the industry rallied for the war effort, helping the government sell war bonds and providing cards for the soldiers overseas. This period also marked the beginning of the industry’s close relationship with the U.S. Post Office (later the U.S. Postal Service). By the 1950’s, the studio card (a long card with a short punch line) appeared on the scene to firmly establish the popularity of humor in American greeting cards.

During the 1980’s, alternative cards began to appear that did not honor any particular holiday but rather an event in a person’s life, such as a divorce, the beginning or ending of a relationship, or the death of a beloved pet. These cards continue to show the greatest sales growth of all card categories.

During the early twenty-first century, U.S. consumers purchased approximately 7 billion greeting cards each year, generating nearly $7.5 billion in retail sales. More than 90 percent of all U.S. households buy greeting cards, with the average household purchasing thirty individual cards in a year. Women purchase more than 80 percent of all greeting cards. There are an estimated three thousand greeting card publishers in the United States, ranging from small family-run organizations to major corporations.

Further Reading
  • Chase, Ernest Dudley. The Romance of Greeting Cards: An Historical Account of the Origin, Evolution, and Development of the Christmas Card, Valentine, and Other Forms of Engraved or Printed Greetings from the Earliest Days to the Present Time. Detroit: Tower Books, 1971. First published in 1926, this is perhaps the first attempt at a full history of greeting cards.
  • Lavin, Mau, ed. The Business of Holidays. New York: Monacelli Press, 2004. Thirty-three essays on topics ranging from Groundhog Day to Christmas explore the American fascination with holidays.
  • Pleck, Elizabeth Hafkin. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Study of the kinds of community and family occasions that have given rise to many lines of greeting cards.
  • Schmidt, Leigh E. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Scholarly exploration of the commercialization of the principal holidays for which greeting cards are designed.
  • Shank, Barry. A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Well-illustrated history of American greeting cards that seeks to place their use within the broader framework of cultural history.

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U.S. Postal Service

Promotional holidays

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