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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
But up close you see this is not a common factory, not the usual piecework. A woman, her adhesive machine hissing like a gosling, is pasting lacy red pages into a folded card. Next to her a worker deftly glues three tiny Styrofoam blocks to the back of a big-eyed paper moppet and sticks it to a blueflocked card emblazoned in gold: “Be my valentine.” This is a greeting-card factory. Hallmark, to be precise.
What most of the fourteen thousand employees of Hallmark Cards, Inc., are doing is mass-producing American sentiment. Their task is to make a product that will stand in for the bewildered, inarticulate, well-intentioned rest of us. Like the other workers in the four hundred-odd companies that make up the “social expression industry,” they are fabricating dazzling John Aldens for us dull Myles Standishes. Hallmark happens to be the biggest John Alden company in the world—the king of American sentiment, with a trademarked crown on every card.
When a young entrepreneur named Joyce Clyde Hall came out from the fastnesses of Norfolk, Nebraska, in 1910 to set up shop in Kansas City, he could scarcely have envisioned his effect on the sentiment industry. He was simply in the business of mailing packets of unsolicited picture postcards to druggists, hoping they’d keep them. Yet, seventy-two years and untold millions of cards later, Hallmark has estimated annual sales of a billion dollars. The exact figure is known to only a few. J. C. Hall’s son, Donald, who became president of Hallmark in 1966 (his father was chairman of the board until his death last October), rightly calls it a closely held corporation. But unquestionably Hallmark sells hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cards, gift wrap, plaques, posters, puzzles, calendars, gummed initials, party supplies, and assorted oddments. Even J. C. Hall himself may occasionally have wondered, “Whence came all this? Out of what deep need or impulse do the people buy my bunnies, flowers, Muppets, Santas, hearts—any of the thirteen thousand or so different cards produced each year in such seemingly endless categories as religious, cute, traditional, formal, juvenile, humorous, and ‘suitable for serious illness’?”
Looking over a handful of cheap greeting cards, Hall realized there could be something more to this business.
Hallmark historians like to point out that precursors of the greeting card, or at least of ritualized social expressions, date back as far as the ancient Egyptian and Roman custom of exchanging small gifts to celebrate the New Year. Valentines are said to have originated in the Roman Feast of Lupercalia, February 15, when young lovers slipped notes to each other in a sort of erotic lottery, the maidens putting their wishes into a large urn and the swains drawing out their courting assignments. Another version of the origin of valentines relates that the persecuted St. Valentine supposedly fell in love with his jailer’s blind daughter, restored her sight through his faith, and before his martyrdom sent her a farewell note signed “from your Valentine.” The earliest formal valentine dates from 1415, when another imprisoned lover, Charles, Duke of Orleans, crafted a love message and dispatched it from the Tower of London to his wife.
But these social expressions were personal, unique, and made by extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Hardly mass-produced, they certainly were not the product of an official governmentally designated “day.” History provided the inspiration for most of these commemorative days, the Hallmark archivists maintain. One finds, for instance, the modern Mother’s Day card anticipated in the seventeenth-century letters of greeting and affection that young tradesmen sent once a year to their mothers. However, these, too, were personal, handmade messages. The verse primers of that and the next century, called valentine writers, may have pointed the way to ready-made sentiment. They offered glib poems of love, admiration, and friendship for the hurried or speechless to copy out.