Greeting Cards

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Greeting Cards

Forms of correspondence with preprinted written sentiments and illustrative pictures, greeting cards have in many ways replaced more traditional and personalized forms of communication like letter writing by appealing to the needs of busy Americans and their willingness to mark an increasing number of holidays and events in largely commercialized ways. Rather than writing lengthy missives by hand, Americans since the turn of the century have found it easier to purchase prewritten sentiments in the form of greeting cards that they need only sign, address, and mail.

The earliest objects resembling greeting cards were handmade Valentines, popular in Europe and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the 1840s, both English and German chromolithographers had developed techniques allowing them to publish full-color postcards commemorating, primarily, Christmas and Valentine's Day. These enjoyed large commercial success in America as well as Europe, beginning what would become an American habit of sending manufactured rather than personal correspondence. The popularity of these early holiday cards also marked the increasing mobility of Americans and their need to communicate with friends and relatives now miles rather than blocks away, and appealed to the needs of busy people.

After the Civil War, the United States experienced what historian Leigh Eric Schmidt has termed the "commercialization of the calendar," an increasing prevalence of business-inspired holidays that were marked in increasingly homogenous ways. In about 1866, Louis Prang, a Boston printmaker, perfected his "chromo" process and was therefore able to produce finely detailed printed images in full, bright colors. Prang applied his talents to media of all sorts, including advertising trade cards, fine art prints, and calendars. His work producing Christmas cards, beginning in 1874, was the start of American greeting card production and the gradual unseating of European imports. Soon after Prang's first cards, he added birthday, New Year's, and Easter cards. These early cards, still in postcard form, were often embellished with detailed surface embossing, applied glitter, and silky fringe.

In the first decade of the twentieth century American producers completely overtook European manufacturers, creating a new sensibility for greeting cards and establishing the most enduring form of the greeting card, the folded piece of paper with a picture on the front, a written sentiment of verse inside, and a size-matched envelope. These early companies included the A. M. Davis Company, Rust Craft Publishers, the Keating Company, the Gibson Art Company, Hall Brothers, and American Greetings, which all enjoyed industry solidarity after the formation of the National Association of Greeting Card Manufacturers (later, The Greeting Card Association) in 1913. The success of these companies relied on Americans' increasing propensity to acknowledge a greater number of holidays: Mother's Day, Father's Day, and St. Patrick's Day were quickly added to the modern celebratory schedule. The greeting card industry worked together with the floral, jewelry, and confectionery industries not only to ingrain the importance of holiday celebrations in the collective American psyche, but also to make Americans feel more comfortable about relying on premade commodities to do so.

The most enduring of the early greeting card manufacturers were Hallmark, American Greetings, and Gibson Greetings, all founded between 1907 and 1914. Hallmark, established in 1914 in Kansas City, Missouri, by Mr. Joyce C. Hall and his brother Rollie, was the most successful of the three—in 1995, Hallmark possessed 42 percent of the market, followed by American Greetings with 35 percent and Gibson with 8 percent. With revenues estimated at $3.8 billion in 1994, it is no wonder that Hallmark has been called the "General Motors of emotion." As such, the company also cultivated its image of being a producer of down-home, conservative sentiments. J. C. Hall was a close friend of Walt Disney, and often incorporated wholesome Disney images into his cards, along with the works of other traditional illustrators like Norman Rockwell. In addition, Hallmark sponsored television's well-known drama series, the Hallmark Hall of Fame, beginning in the 1950s, and coined the slogan, "When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best." To critics, Hallmark had achieved the dubious reputation of being a purveyor of bland, mass-produced feelings that reflected the most banal of middle-American thoughts.

Greeting cards have not only tapped into, but also reflected changing American sentiments, aesthetic preferences, and preoccupations throughout the twentieth century. During the Depression, some Mother's Day cards came embellished with a precious piece of lace; and special Mother's Day cards during World War II were made and sent to women who had lost their sons in the war. Continuing to tap into the contemporary zeitgeist for their success, card companies in the late 1970s responded to a growing American cynicism, producing "alternative" humor lines alongside their more conservative and sentimental staples. By the mid-1980s larger companies began to capitalize on baby boomers' growing desire for self-expression and feelings of individuality by developing more specific lines of greeting cards. By the 1990s Hallmark itself had its own alternative humor card line called Shoebox Greetings. Its Mahogany line, targeted toward African-American audiences, strove to open up the world of greeting cards to nonwhite faces and sensibilities. Hallmark's Recovery line offered cards for former addicts, and the Thinking of You line included cards for such late-century concerns as downsizing, the needs of caregivers, new divorcees, PMS, and the struggles of weight loss.

With the help of women, who purchased more than 85 percent of all greeting cards in 1998, Hallmark enjoyed $3.7 billion in revenue, while American Greetings took in $2.2 billion. Card companies have also realistically acknowledged the potential encroachment of computers into their businesses by setting up in-store kiosks where one can create one's own computer-generated card. Hallmark has even developed a computer program that allows one to produce individualized cards at home.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Chase, Ernest Dudley. The Romance of Greeting Cards. Cambridge, University Press of Cambridge, 1956.

Hall, Joyce. When You Care Enough. Kansas City, Missouri, Hallmark, 1979.

Hirshey, Gerri. "Happy [ ] Day to You." New York Times Magazine. July 2, 1995, 20-7+.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1995.

Stern, Ellen Stock. The Very Best from Hallmark. New York, Abrams, 1988.