- Historic Sites
If You’ve Got An Ounce Of Feeling, Hallmark Has A Ton Of Sentiment
How the colossus of the “social expression industry” always manages to say it better than you do
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
Commercial greetings flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the 1860s American greeting-card makers, following the English, were producing dozens of different designs, many beautifully printed and ornamented. The publisher Louis Prang took such pains that some of his cards required twenty lithograph plates, and Esther Rowland’s handmade, silk-fringed, jeweled, laced, and beribboned messages could set an earnest Lothario back as much as thirty-five dollars. (Some examples of her work can be seen in last February’s issue.) Such quality products, though, could not compete with the flood of inexpensive cards coming off the presses by the end of the century. Customers could choose from landscapes, babies, comic Irishmen, fairies, kittens and puppies, birds, Madonnas, family scenes, just about anything imaginable. For the naughty there were “penny dreadfuls” or “rudes and crudes,” forerunners of the mildly humorous and mocking “slam cards” in the current Hallmark lines. Postal officials here and in a few other countries judged some of the “dreadfuls” so bad that they banned them. But there could be no banning those phalanxes of cheap German-made picture postcards. They ran the Prangs out of business—and they provided Joyce Hall with his stock.
Joyce Clyde Hall had been born in David City, Nebraska, in 1891. His birthright was what he later called the “gift of poverty.” His frail mother cared for her four children as best she could, often going without food or clothing so they could be nourished and warm. His father, a feckless preacher and inventor, deserted the family when Joyce was seven. Joyce got his first job at eight, doing farm chores. At nine he started selling sandwiches, then horseradish, then cosmetics in David City. At eleven he was working for his brothers, Rollie and Bill, in the Norfolk bookshop they’d bought. There, a few years later, came the fateful introduction to the German greeting cards. Before long Joyce Hall realized there could be something more to this business than riding the local freight, the “Oconee Turnaround,” drumming for card business at every whistle-stop. And so, in January of 1910, he left for Kansas City. He traveled without a high school diploma but with a suitcase full of cards and his heart full of ambition. He would do something with these cards, something profitable and not shabby. On arriving in Kansas City, Hall first lived at the YMCA, where his stockroom was the space under his bed and his distribution facility the post office. By 1915 Joyce and his brother Rollie had Hall Brothers Company firmly enough established to survive a fire that wiped out their stock of valentines. That year they acquired their own engraving plant and printed their first wholly original cards. J. C. Hall had also by then made the first of several crucial marketing discoveries: cards could be more than an easy, inexpensive form of communication. Sending them was, he decided, a deeply rooted social custom, and the carriage trade would pay for good ones. He could succeed faster by forsaking his cheaper offerings and even the popular leather postcards (one had his favorite slogan burned into it: “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on”). What was needed were tasteful cards with envelopes for private social communication of two sorts: what his company came to call the “everyday”—birthday, sympathy, getwell—and the “seasonal”—Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day.
To cope with the unhappy fact that people don’t have to buy cards, Hallmark uses “guilty verse” to make them think they should.
Hall set out to provide them; and he brought to the project some other important concepts. One he learned on his very first day at Spalding’s Commercial College in Kansas City, where, to please his family, he had enrolled to learn typing, commercial law, penmanship, and spelling. George E. Spalding’s initial act was to have each of his students tack up a tin sign reading, “Time is money—save time. ” J. C. Hall was impressed but made a significant alteration when it came to his own business: “Time is everything—save time” became an enduring motto at Hall Brothers. Their business, after all, was saving time—buying a card saved the time-consuming trouble of dreaming up a sentiment.
Steadily increasing sales proved Hall’s precepts right. The company grew through the twenties, expanded while the national economy shrank in the 1930s, and flourished after World War II when prosperity and mobility created a tremendous market.