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If You’ve Got An Ounce Of Feeling, Hallmark Has A Ton Of Sentiment

July 2024
16min read

How the colossus of the “social expression industry” always manages to say it better than you do

FROM A DISTANCE , it looks like any other factory scene. Women, seated at small tables, hunch over piecework, their hands moving in quick, accustomed ways.

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.

BUT IT was not until 1840, when the English approved a penny postage rate, that the time of Everyman’s social expression had come. Valentines, embellished with elegant, machine-made paper lace and glittering with tinsel, feathers, and powdered colored glass, became a rage. The Christmas card followed the cheap postage rate by three years, when a Londoner named Henry Cole commissioned a Royal Academy Artist to design a Yule greeting. The result, a three-by-five-inch triptych, pictured a family raising a holiday toast and flanked by portrayals of Christmas charity: feeding and clothing the needy. The words—known in the business as the “sentiment” (the artwork is called the “design”)—read “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You. ” At Hallmark this particular sentiment is called the “classic in the field” and will adorn some of the five billion or so Christmas cards posted in the United States this year. Of his original “Christmas in an envelope”—Hallmark’s generic phrase for Yule cards—Mr. Cole printed only one thousand copies.

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.

The cards in the Hallmark files mirror the concerns of seven crowded decades. A 1928 card, playing off Lindbergh, shows lovers in a cut-out monoplane, with the sentiment, “It’s PLANE to see I’m all taken up with you.” Many Depression cards keep a stiff upper lip—“in this year of readjustment.” Others flash breezy tough-guy lines: “Hi, Toots, Happy Birthday.” Or topical word play: “There ain’t no Hooey Long with this/It’s just a great big wish for Happy Birthday.” World War II cards, most of them pacific, send good wishes “to you in the Service.” A few clearly violate J. C. Hall’s belief that “good taste is good business”: a 1946 number, for instance, shows a cartoon anarchist’s round black bomb labeled ATOMIC , its sentiment reading, “The little atoms in this bomb can show you what to do/Just have yourself a BANG-UP TIME each minute all day through.” Hallmark’s efficient archivist, Sally Hopkins, smiles at the card’s naïveté. And winces at the early blackface cards in her care. “We don’t show those to people,” she says, “It was a different time.”

CHANGING TIMES are evident throughout the collection. You can see Mickey Mouse and the gang—Walt Disney was a friend of J. C. Hall’s—come aboard in the 1930s. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts and Jim Henson’s Muppets are their present-day descendants. Artists, too, change with the years from Norman Rockwell to Saul Steinberg to Alexander Girard. “Mr. J. C.,” as the founder is called by longtime Hallmarkers, counted as a special coup getting Winston Churchill’s paintings for a line of 1960s cards. But it’s the “contemporary” cards, above all, that show how closely Hallmark has monitored the society.

Born in the late 1950s as a response to a growing irreverence toward things previously held sacred, the contemporary line has, over the years, featured humorous H-bomb cards, hippie greetings, peace messages, lunar-landing missives. The archives disgorge C.B. radio cards, jogging cards, silicone-injection cards, fuel-shortage cards, streaking cards, Astro-turf cards, computer-dating cards, feminist cards, even goose-down cards. Last year there were Princess Di cards and video-game greetings. All of these, of course, merely augment the tried-and-true everyday and seasonal products.

In marketing, Hallmark is to cards what Procter & Gamble is to soap, albeit with some crucial distinctions. Faced, for example, with the unhappy fact that people don’t have to buy cards, Hallmark uses the “guilty verse” to make them think they should. Every line carries at least one card covering the message “You know I don’t write as often as I should, but here’s a card for you.” The famous Hallmark slogan, “When you care enough to send the very best,” was chosen by Mr. J.C. from a batch of 1944 promotion ideas because it simultaneously conveyed quality and a sense of obligation. The slogan is said around Hallmark to be “the world’s greatest guilt producer.”


Creating a sense of obligation has been only one ingredient in Hallmark’s marketing mix. Again the difference between card and soap is illustrative. A box of detergent needs no special occasion, no requirement of “sendability,” and it seldom reflects the temperament, personality, or affluence of the buyer. Yet a good line of greeting cards, they’ll tell you at Hallmark, must do all those things for every sort of customer. Predictably it was J. C. Hall who laid down the basic rules. Early on he began recording each card’s sales success and the possible reason for it. He then sent dealers his cards based on what he knew or strongly suspected would sell—on a “no buy back” basis. Today in Hallmark’s beige product-management offices, computer printouts are studied for, say, the 1983 “Christmas model line.” The managers scan past model lines for eighty-five coded characteristics from price to paper stock to size and subject and sentiment. “From the computer,” says Don Fletcher, corporate product director for greeting cards, “we see we need so many trees, wreaths, poinsettia, Santas, snow, and whatever. We add the vapor of experience to the computer and make sure we have no holes in the line.” Then, Fletcher says, the line is produced, and the computer sends the retailers what the machine knows is a good selection. And there is still a policy of no return of goods. If the cards don’t sell the first time, the dealer is stuck. But as Fletcher notes, the next time around he won’t buy Hallmark. As for direct orders from stores, “a retailer only has to send in a computer card,” says a Hallmark public relations man. “The computer sends the cards, maybe not what he thought he needed but what we know will move.”


Knowing what will sell is the heart of Hallmark’s creative department, where, in their cluttered warrens, the writers and the artists create the myriad cards that beckon from Hallmark’s carefully chosen and decorated retail outlets. Another of Mr. J.C.’s principles was close attention to where his cards were sold. He inaugurated the eye-level, illuminated card shelf and later directed the development of Hallmark’s color-coordinated, mood-lighted, designer-fashioned “card environments.” Hallmark cards are not sold in supermarkets or discount stores; such lowly environments fall to the company’s subsidiary line, Ambassador Cards.

The creative department is where fundamental work of the greeting-card business is done. No one at Hallmark understands it better than Jeanette Lee, a figure nearly as legendary as J. C. Hall himself. Lee, a member of the board of directors and a corporate vice-president, has been with Hallmark for decades. A trim, soft-spoken woman with a firm air, she heads the design department, the collection of four hundred or so artists who draw the wreaths, Santas, what-have-you that the computer and the vapors of experience say are needed. She knows how to put together a successful model line. First, you assign a creative team: a designer, a product planner, and an editor-writer. Their job is to create something like what is now on a rolling card rack in Lee’s office, a Thanksgiving model line. She points out some of the various “captions,” or necessary categories. There must be “general wishes” like the “endearments,” the juvenile and humorous and religious and our-house-to-your-house cards. And there must be “direct sentiments,” addressed to uncles, brothers, sisters, in-laws, parents—the whole roster of relatives. Balance is all important. In the Thanksgiving line, for example, Lee says, “They must have a turkey at every price.” Thanksgiving is a conservative holiday, it is explained, and so children motifs belong in the line. Fitting this requirement are the “charmers,” big-eyed waifs drawn for years by Betsey Clark of Amarillo, Texas. Clark is a veteran free-lancer, one of the very few whose unsolicited submission years ago charmed its way into Lee’s lines. “We get over twenty thousand mail-ins a year,” she says, “and we look them all over, but we take less than one percent.”

The creative teams evaluate the pull of the twin appeals, design and sentiment. Each has a different role, it’s believed; the design makes you pick up the card, but the sentiment sells it. Another dictum is that the eye is fickle but the ear is not, meaning that the artwork must move with the times while the sentiments can stay relatively unchanged. Sentiments are recycled through time, and skillful editors can take a Christmas sentiment and tinker it into a Mother’s Day message. Currently there appears to be a trend toward less copy, except for days like Valentine’s when, Lee says, people “seem to want more expression.”

An executive explains: “We add the vapor of experience to the computer and make sure we have no holes in the line.”

Trend watching is a serious occupation at Hallmark. The corporate design division puts out Trends , a beige and blue newsletter that vibrates such intelligence as: “The search for self-fulfillment, self-enrichment, self-enhancement continues. ” Translated, this means more kittens than puppies should be on cards because self-f ulf illed single women find cats are easier pets to leave at home when they go out to work. Similarly, Lee says that “fewer cards today show Mommy and Daddy home together—they often aren’t.” Psychosociological currents, though, aren’t the newsletter’s staple. “Forecasts call for emphasis on the desert colors,” a recent number announced—“sand, brown, rust, and the sun colors, and the aquatics or ‘wind-surfing’ colors, in which blues dominate.” Such tips, like the fabric samples designers submit, often end up in the cards. Not long ago Lee received some smokelike poofs and strands from Paris, sweet nostalgic pastels and other bland colors that experts are pushing. They’ll go into the new lines next to reliable reds, blues, yellows, lavenders.

It’s in the planning rooms that the creative teams mix and match new colors, old colors, recycled sentiments, and still-vigorous messages. Solemn ponderings go on. This year unicorns could be big, like the recent “swine art” cards that Jeanette Lee finds “real cute and corny.” Unicorns and Miss Piggy and all the other designs stand in racks along the walls, while, with computer printouts at hand, the team makes its choices. Some are easy. Roses, for instance, belong in most lines because they connote remembrance, love, and taste. A few “concepts” (the indivisible combination of art and copy) are sure-fire and are always present in one or another line. One perennial is the floral card reading:

Pansies always stand for thought— At least that’s what folks say. So this comes to show my thoughts Are there with you today.

Not even the computer knows just how many cards this has sold, but the last estimate was more than twelve million . The author, a free-lancer, made hundreds of thousands of dollars—some say over a million—on this number. But that was back in the days when Hallmark paid free-lancers a royalty on each card. Today’s freelancers get a straight fee, normally one hundred to two hundred and fifty dollars for a drawing, and one hundred for a sentiment. The free-lancers work on a Darwinian margin: an artist can submit twenty-five cards and have perhaps two accepted, but only if another of Hallmark’s marketing tools—the consumer-choice “panel test”—shows those two have broad appeal. Focus-group interviews also probe a card’s potential, and the usual market research measurements are examined by the creative teams.

THE HALLMARK FOLKS know who their customers will be. For instance, they know 83 percent of the card buyers are female, and 60 percent of those are over forty. The demography accounts for the manufacturing of sentiment freighted with flowers, adorable animals, and smoothrhyming messages. But despite the availability of this hard research, the creative teams and their superiors struggle with nearly metaphysical nuances in guiding their creations from printout to approval. Hallmark knows that by capitalizing on the customer’s inarticulateness, they are also allowing them to blame Hallmark for the card’s effect. George Parker, Hallmark’s corporate vice-president of the creative division, maintains: “They sign their names to something we write, and so if the receivers don’t respond well, the customers can say we did it, not them.” It’s obviously important for each concept to be as appealing as possible to as many as possible. “Nothing must be tricky. Apparently artless expression is the goal. … The team must be sensitive to the total intensity, the tonal balance of each card, and the line as a whole. The cards also have to match the marketplace realities.”

Living between high-toned aesthetics and the marketplace makes Daniel Drake, editorial director at Hallmark, acutely sensitive to the psychology of the customers. He’s detected that male buyers equate the amount they spend with the quality of the emotion. Carols appealing to them must accordingly be hot and intense, bespeaking expense. “Cooler messages are usually cheaper,” Drake says. “Cool means you’re spending less. Men don’t like that.” These insights lead planners to make sympathy cards small and cheap. They reason that people have a natural aversion to depression, illness, or death. Drake prescribes flat, spare prose for the sentiment and a simple, straightforward design. Thereby the cool “intensity” matches the sender’s subconscious reason for sending the card: to avoid the feeling evoked by a dreadful event. For happier sentiments the heart of greeting-card text is sixteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. “Find somebody who can write that,” Drake says, “and you can start a card business.”

At last the finished product comes down the folding chute— at a rate of up to a million cards per shift.

Whatever the form of sentiment or design, nothing beyond the innocently naughty is ever included. What Jeanette Lee terms “jarring trends” toward salacious and smutty cards will never find expression in Hallmark’s lines. “We leave that for other manufacturers,” says George Parker. So every model line is prophylactic when it makes its journey to the “approval room.”

This conference area is distinguished by a mural of a railroad train, the engine (metaphorically the “concept”) tugging along cars filled with planning captions: whimsical, tailored, and on through the thesaurus of trends. Here final strokes are applied so that the famous Hallmark “ticket” can be written. On this production-routing document will go the card’s size, price, paper, folds, such special effects as “flitter” (flecks of colored plastic) or “hot foil” (heat-embossed metallic paper) or “flocking” (suedelike nap glued to the paper). Here are specified feathers or lace or honeycomb or raised printing or acetate overlays or any other necessary handwork.

The journey is over, the train arrived. Yet some have not enjoyed the trip. In the bars of Kansas City a few fierce-eyed Hallmarkers past and present decry synthetic emotion and artificial sweetness. But they are a tiny minority. Mr. J. C.’s benevolent policies—learned, he said, from observing R. H. Macy’s operations—keep most of the employees happy, busy, and prosperous. The company’s personnel operations are a model for any industry. Hallmarkers stay for years—longevity is a virtue—and why not? Careful screening and evaluation has guided them to congenial tasks. They’re well paid. They have free life insurance, free medical and dental care, free parking. At 9:30 A.M. and 2:30 P.M. the beige machines in the corridors dispense free coffee, soup, and soft drinks to the lines of waiting workers. Hallmarkers share in profits, keep slim with company-sponsored sports, and eat well in a bounteous cafeteria called the Crown Room. Three nurses and a physician wait for calls from the acres of offices, and advisers can be summoned for everything from car pooling to financial planning.

Tributes to the company’s personnel dot the corporate landscape. There’s a collection of Emmy statuettes garnered by The Hallmark Hall of Fame , one of television’s most honored shows. J. C. Hall liked to advertise nationally—practically unheard of for a card maker—and to do it with as much taste and style as possible. Perhaps the most impressive jewel in Hallmark’s crown is the landscape itself, the eighty-five acres, formerly in a sorry state of urban decay, on which rests the international headquarters and the shopping and living complex called Crown Center.

THE HEADQUARTERS is five interconnected seven-story buildings backed into a hillside like gray Lego constructions. Outside, an occasional crown announces itself. Inside, the crown motif is relentless, down to the chandeliers. Westward from headquarters sparkles Crown Center—a five - hundred - million - dollar complex supervised by a Hallmark subsidiary. There an immaculate Hall’s department store murmurs “good taste.” Across a plaza that contains an iceskating terrace and a Calder stabile are a score of boutiques, a posh condominium and apartment development, and the Crown Center Hotel, rising out of a limestone cliff. The cliff, complete with waterfall and foliage, forms part of the lobby. Northward two hundred yards rears a twenty-eight-story building and beyond that the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where a year and a half ago two skywalks gave way during a tea dance, killing one hundred and thirteen people and injuring over two hundred others. The hotel is back in operation now, and the Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation is sure the facility will regain the public’s trust.

“Trust,” like “taste” and “very best,” is a touchstone at Hallmark. In the headquarters there is an atmosphere that all is well and will continue so. A public relations man confides: “I worked in government and had to quit because there were so many klutzes. Here everybody knows their job and does it well.” Thus, management trusts that each product line will emerge attractive enough and various enough to snare most sentiment seekers. If a card fails, the computer ensures the concept will be discarded and a new one created. The new card, in good taste and carefully focused, will come down a folding chute somewhere in a Hallmark factory, if necessary at a one-million-per-shif t rate. At the plant in Lawrence the supervisor of production stood and mused as the machines clanked, hissed, stamped, cut, silk-screened, folded. “You know,” he said, “we automate as much as we can, but you still can’t take the personal touch out of a greeting card.”


The cards whiz past, on their way to plastic bags and then to distribution centers and then to the Hallmark counters. One of them fits virtually every occasion a customer might encounter. Perhaps the time is right for Hallmark Lights, a new line of cards to allow young people to communicate lightheartedly and at a distance. Perhaps one of the new ready-made occasional cards strikes home: congratulations on a nurse capping, new job, new apartment, new pet. Or maybe what’s wanted is something for an old holiday like Halloween that’s receiving fresh emphasis (“You know,” says Daniel Drake, “we sell them in England, and they don’t even celebrate Halloween in England”). Whichever, Hallmark trusts that one or another concept will strike you, that something will articulate your particular sentiment. Something made for you, something quick, convenient, and the very best money can buy.

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