‘art & soul
A brief history of greeting cards

The e-greetings of today seem mechanical, impersonal and devoid of any warmth or care which the sender might originally have had in his mind, says B.N. Goswamy

‘The month of Kartik’ from a Baramasa series, Pahari painting, end of 18th century
‘The month of Kartik’ from a Baramasa series, Pahari painting, end of 18th century

I am beginning to have somewhat mixed feelings about greeting cards, especially of the kind that seem to circulate today. But I remember sending while in early college years my first New Year card.

A ‘Scottish card" it was called, with obvious reference to the care with which the Scots are reputed to handle their money. On the outer cover was a dial with a small slit in it which you could move to different positions, and in the window below would show up a different greeting each time: "Merry Christmas", for instance, "Joyous Easter", or "Happy Birthday" etc.

Ten different occasions were covered by the card, and the printed message inside asked the recipient to please keep the card for the whole year and keep moving the dial as appropriate to the occasion. A card for all seasons, as it were! I thought there was some wit in it, but I do not think the person I sent it to appreciated it much.

I am reminded of the droll parsimony of that card when I receive electronic greetings via the internet now. As I did recently, over Divali. I am not ungrateful for being in the thoughts of friends and relations on this, or any other, occasion, but I do have problems I think with the manner in which these cards arrive.

The sender avails of the free services of some company which sends out these cards, and asks it to send them electronically to his/her entire list of friends, all at one go. The company then sends me a mail telling me that I have a greeting from so-and-so, and that I should click on a site to be able to access it. What happens in the process, with how many people my email ID is shared by that company, what curious ads start appearing in my inbox, and how much junk begins to clutter it, is another matter. The whole process in itself makes the greetings so mechanical, so impersonal, and thus so emptied of any warmth or care which the sender might originally have had in his/her mind. It feels like husk in my hands.

Am I over-reacting, perhaps, to this business of all image and no substance? But, in this, I have the support of at least one correspondent of a European newspaper who is really angered by these cards. Why can’t my friend write a personal note, even if it is by email, he asks? Why is this notification message coming to me from some unknown greeting card company?

"Why is this company telling me that I have a card from Mabel? Why doesn’t Mabel tell me directly whatever she has to say? I get flashbacks of childhood, where Billy had to ask Sally to tell Jessie that Billy sort of likes Jessie." The point is easily seen.

But this is the way it has been — the way of commerce overshadowing feelings — for a long time now. Curious to learn more about the history of greeting cards, I started looking things up. I gathered that while greeting each other on special occasions, like the advent of a new year, the Chinese sent messages of goodwill and cheer, and the Egyptians dispatched their salutations by means of papyrus scrolls, the greeting card, as we know it now, appears to have been ‘invented’ in England.

Wood engravers were producing prints with religious themes in the European Middle Ages, but the first commercial Christmas and New Year’s card was designed in 1843 by John C. Horsley, a British narrative painter at the suggestion and request of his friend Sir Henry Cole, who was the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It featured, within a frame of ivy and flowers, the picture of a family with a small child drinking wine together, and even though it was objected to by many on moral grounds the idea was shrewd.

A batch of 1000 cards was printed and sold for a shilling each. The postal service had introduced the Penny Post, another idea of Sir Henry Cole’s, a short while earlier. So, it was an ideal marriage: printed cards bearing sentimental messages inexpensively delivered. There was no looking back from then on.

In the United States, the greeting card industry was started by a German immigrant, Louis Prang, who had founded a small lithographic business in Boston in 1856. Within 10 years, he had perfected the lithographic process of colour printing, and in the early 1870s he began the publication of deluxe editions of Christmas cards which found a ready market within the country and in England. Today some seven billion cards — for all kinds of occasions — are sold annually in the United States alone, it has been estimated. It is big, very big, business.

This is what led an Ohio University Professor, Barry Shank, to study the phenomenon of greeting cards and write a book A Token of My Affection. The study, filled with interesting people, intriguing images and big ideas, is being spoken of as "an important exploration of just how our economic and emotional lives are connected".

And as one critic wrote, the author "shows that there’s no better way of examining what Raymond Williams called ‘structures of feeling’ than looking at Valentine and Christmas cards." For the modern greeting card is the product of an industry whose values and aims seem to contradict the sentiments that most cards express.

But all this is getting too heavy perhaps. For, come Divali or the New Year or a birthday, we still like to receive cards. They come in all forms and sizes: from the very beautiful to the utterly clich`E9d, from the elegant to the tawdry. Of the former kind, I received one recently over Divali — with a handwritten message, I am quick to add — showing two lovers playing the traditional game of dice in the night while on two tall poles earthen lamps are seen burning, evidently to show the goddess Lakshmi the way. The wonderfully quiet image illustrates the month of Kartik in which Divali falls.