Thinking of you: Why do we send greetings cards?

Greetings cards are a fantastic way to mark birthdays and Christmases, and to demonstrate affection for the special people in our lives. In the days before social media, going through a long list of names, and composing friendly messages to each of them, was an annual tradition. Of course, this is a practice that’s evolved over the years (we don’t tend to be quite as longwinded when it comes the message inside the card, for one thing) but it’s one that’s survived the digital age, and it looks set to persist for a while yet.

Where did Greetings Cards Come From?

Greetings cards have been around, arguably, since the development of the written word. As soon as we were capable of writing down our thoughts, we were sending short messages to other people to mark special feasts. This is a practice that’s developed separately in different cultures, from ancient China to ancient Egypt.

In medieval Europe, the new year became an opportunity to wish others good fortune for the coming harvests – whose success or failure often spelled the difference between life and death. Making cards of this sort by hand was expensive during this period, and thus it was only the wealthy who could afford to send them. Given that most poorer people had only very local social circles, it was also the aristocracy that drove the trend toward posted greetings cards.

If the development of writing made the greetings card possible, and the invention of paper made it practical, it was the mechanised printing press and industrial revolution that put the greetings card within reach of the masses. The first Christmas card can be attributed to Sir Henry Cole, who in 1847 commissioned the first decorated card for the season.

Why are Greetings Cards Important?

All of this is very interesting, but it doesn’t explain what function the greetings card actually performs in the age of Facebook. Put simply, what reason is there to bother with them?

For one thing, a physical greetings card triggers a different part of the brain to a digital message. We think of a card as intrinsically valuable, and pay closer attention to its contents. For another, a greetings card demonstrates that the person sending considers that the message, and the person it’s addressed to, are worthy of time and effort. If you want to create an impression, in other words, a greetings card is a difficult thing to beat!

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