Today over 2 billion greeting cards are sold annually in the UK covering all manner of occasions from birthdays to Bar Mitzvah's, new home to new job, good luck to graduation and much more besides. It is estimated that the size of the UK market is around £1.7 billion per annum. People in the UK send more cards per capita than any other nation.
The tradition of sending good wishes goes back many centuries, probably beginning with the Chinese and Egyptians who exchanged goodwill messages at the start of a new year to ward off evil spirits. However, these tokens were not sent at other times of year and didn't bear any resemblance to cards we recognise today.
There is evidence of printed cards from the 14th Century in Germany where images were carved onto wood blocks, which then be covered in ink and used to print onto paper. These forms of cards were very expensive since they were handmade so were only accessible to well to do and wealthy individuals.
Sir Henry Cole has been credited with establishing the first printed cards that has developed into the mass-production industry we know today. Cole asked his friend and artist John Calcott Horsely to create a painting that could be printed in quantity for him to give to all his friends. Sir Henry Cole was an enterprising man with interests in a number of areas. He quickly recognised the opportunity this printed greeting card could offer, even selling off the remaining stock of cards from this first print run in central London.
The introduction of the Penny Post service combined with improvements to print technologies and paper production quickly increased the popularity, availability and affordability of printed Christmas cards and by the early 1900's the Royal Mail was dealing with an extra 11 million cards during the festive season.
Card manufacturers began to recognise other events and occasions for which cards could be given, moving from Christmas cards to Valentines cards. The oldest example of a printed Valentine card is held in the British Museum.
Today cards are sent to celebrate all kinds of events, such as a child's first day at school, birthdays, congratulations, good luck, well done and even to acknowledge divorce. There are a large number of major card publishers producing cards to suit all tastes and pockets, including irreverent funny cards, traditional cards and detailed handmade cards.
The record for the largest number of cards sent to a single person is held by Craig Shergold, who was the victim of an early Internet chain letter. Craig was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the age of 9 and his family sent a request via email asking people to send him greeting cards so he could get into the Guinness Book of World records. Unfortunately they didn't put a time limit on the request and, by the end of 1991, he had been sent 35 million cards. American businessman, John Kluge, heard about Craig's condition and offered to pay for a life saving operation for him. The operation was successful and Craig recovered from the cancer, but cards continued to be sent to the Shergold's address. The family was allocated their own postcode and even moved house to escape from the deluge of mail that continued to arrive. The chain letter continued to weave its way across the globe and despite the record being retired by the Guinness Book of Records, cards are still being received. To date, over 350 million at the last count.