In the early part of the nineteenth century, birthdays were noted but not celebrated with parties or the giving of presents. Very often mention of a birthday could be found in a diary, a marker of the passage of time. For most it was just another day, a day in which chores still needed to be done and the activities of everyday living accomplished.
By the 1830s more wealthy and urban families began to mark birthdays with the occasional giving of presents. Very often gifts were for very practical items like clothing or shoes. Parties were still not well known. For the adults birthday celebrations seem to have started to become more commonplace, at least for the well-to-do by the latter part of the decade.
George Washington was said to have celebrated his birthdays with grand balls as early as the late 1790s. Some evidence of birthday observances date back prior to the rise of Christianity. In pagan culture evil spirits were greatly feared, and most especially on one's birthday. Birthdays became days filled with laughter and merriment spent with family and special friends in order to chase bad spirits away. Most people brought good thoughts for the upcoming year; however, if the well-wishers brought gifts it was thought to be an especially good charm to shy the evil spirits away.
The fact that these celebrations were at first limited to the wealthy and more well-to-do can be explained for the most part in that they are the only ones who had the financial means to sponsor these lavish celebrations.
The tradition of the birthday card began in England around 1890. The tradition was that well-wishers greeted the birthday individual on his or her birthday in person, but when you could not do that, you sent a card. Therefore, in the beginning, a birthday card was a form of apology for being unable to be present with the person on their birthday. No record exists to know who actually sent the first birthday card.
For most of us, we can more than likely safely assume that our ancestors passed their birthdays in practicality and with little fanfare. So the next time your birthday rolls around think about how much better birthdays are now than they were then.