February 10, 2007

Hallmark

And the man behind the brand is...
Joyce Hall

“I’d like to be the kind of friend you are to me.” Those words, from Edgar Guest, were the first to ever appear on a Hallmark card, in 1916. In the 19th century it was simply too expensive to pay a messenger to deliver sentiments on paper and the thought of sending someone else’s words was simply preposterous. Today more than one-half of all the personal mail delivered in the United States is greeting cards, about seven billion a year. And ten million cards sent each day bear the mark of the man who changed the holiday calendar in America: Joyce Hall.

Hall was born in David City, Nebraska where his father abandoned the family when Joyce was nine. At the age of 15 he was working in a bookstore in Norfolk, Nebraska where his favorite merchandise were not the impressive new books but the intriguing picture postcards the store stocked from Europe. In January 1910 Hall moved to a room in the YMCA in Kansas City (there is even a postcard of the YMCA in Hall’s autobiography).

The next year his brother Rollie joined him in opening a specialty store for postcards, gifts and stationery. The boys were prospering until a fire in 1915 burned away their business. The promise shown by the young men was enough to land a $25,000 loan to rebuild the store and purchase a neighboring engraving firm. The first two Hall cards appeared in 1915. They were unfolded, a little smaller than a postcard, and decoratively handpainted.

Gradually the Halls built a business around gifts. During Christmastime in 1917 Joyce Hall was running out of red and green tissue paper and substituted decorative envelope lining paper. Gift wrap and greeting cards were empire-builders for Hall but no all his innovations were hits. In 1924 he introduced “Greetaphones,” flat cards with records containing an 8-line sentiment with a musical background which no steel needle could decipher when played.

Greeting cards became extravagances of the first order during the Depression in the 1930s but Hall refused to lay off any employees. In 1936 he revolutionized the greeting card business with the introduction of lighted, eye-level display cases featuring rows and rows of cards. Prior to that greeting cards were purchased by asking a clerk who would select an appropriate card.

The British invented the Christmas card but it was the rare greeting that was sent at any other time of year. In America, however, there seemed hardly any occasion that wasn’t worthy of a greeting card. Hall stoked the passions for greeting cards with the first advertising in national magazines in 1928 and by 1944 all his radio commercials were trailed by the unforgettable, “When you care enough to send the very best.” Hall had at first rejected the tag line, written by staffer Ed Goodman, as too long but it soon came to symbolize his entire philosophy.

He started a Hallmark Gallery on New York’s Upper Fifth Avenue as an elegant showcase for Hallmark products and sponsored high-quality television specials - he even aired an opera - as early as 1951. These critically acclaimed ventures were not financially successful but the reputation Hall developed was priceless. When he wanted to feature some of Winston Churchill’s paintings on greeting cards Churchill agreed when told it was for Hallmark. “A good firm,” he said.

Hall retired in 1966 but still maintained a busy work schedule. He spearheaded the conversion of 85 ruined acres, 25 blocks, on the southern edge of Kansas City into the stunning Crown Center. Work was still underway on his last project when he died in 1982 but the new Hallmark headquarters when finished embodied the credo he always lived for, “Good taste is good business.”

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