The Never-Ending Journey of the Holiday Card

December 17, 2018 · CLASSMATES FUN

Quick: When you hear the name “Hallmark,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

These days, many people might think first of feel-good holiday movies. (The Hallmark Channel seems to have gotten very popular recently!)

But the company’s empire started, of course, with cards.

Back in 1910, in Kansas City, MO, Joyce Hall and his brother, Rollie, launched a postcard business called Hall Brothers. A few years later, they started selling valentines and Christmas cards (after postcards weren’t such a big deal anymore).

The greeting cards caught on, big-time. It seemed that customers loved the idea of being able to send correspondence to family and friends with relatively little effort (but with more privacy than postcards allowed). The space allotted in a greeting card wasn’t really big enough to expect a full letter – just room enough for a quick note.

Decades later, in 1954 — after many changes and expansions — the business name was officially changed to Hallmark.

Millions of people still rely on Hallmark as their source for holiday cards (and family-friendly programming).

But there have been some big changes in holiday greeting traditions over the decades.

In the days when almost everyone wore a hat, holiday cards had very traditional visuals: Santa in a sleigh, nativity scenes, winter landscapes, and so on.

Over the next decade or two, card artists began experimenting with different artistic styles and themes and developing new kinds of designs. Brighter colors were used, and the result was often more lighthearted than designers’ earlier offerings.

As the years rolled on, and cultural changes continued to shape popular culture, holiday cards kept evolving.

And, even as early as the 1950s, some creative folks had already started incorporating family photos into cards.

Of course, more traditional themes remained popular, too.

And then, along came an innovation to the holiday card tradition. Some welcomed the development, while others were not so enthusiastic.

We’re talking about the annual holiday letter.

The practice got its start in the 1950s. The war was over, and there were lots of new families – and new suburbs to inhabit. The population was moving around more than it had done in previous decades. In many cases, people were settling farther away from loved ones as they left their home towns for the first time.

Long-distance phone calls were expensive. And hand-writing messages in several dozen cards could be time-consuming, especially for those who were busy raising young children. But there was often a lot of news to share, especially if you were now halfway across the country and only made occasional visits to your home town.

But writing one letter and making copies to send to everybody? This could seem like a godsend to a busy parent (usually the mother). While composing the document could take a little while, it was definitely a timesaver overall.

A typical letter began with a generic greeting (“Dear friends and family,”) and proceeded to update the recipients on the goings-on in the life of the writer over the previous year. Children’s activities and travel highlights were often featured topics: “We very much enjoyed our family vacation to the Grand Canyon.” “Billy is going to play a sheep again in the Christmas pageant.”

Certain recipients viewed these annual letters as nothing more than a page of boasting, but others appreciated them (especially when the writer’s personality actually shone through).

It took a couple more decades for holiday letters to really catch on with a larger segment of the population. Meanwhile, cards were still popular. By this point, you could find pretty much any design to fit your mood.

The late 20th century brought more innovations to the greeting card industry. Cards containing musical chips (even versions where the sender could record their own message or song) began popping up in store displays. These were usually fun the first few times they were opened, but the sound soon wavered and eventually disappeared (especially if there were little ones around!).

Companies like Shutterfly also popped up, allowing people to create and send family photo cards with ease.

Nowadays, although people seem to have more connections than ever (thanks largely to social media), fewer envelopes are arriving in mailboxes. The average number of holiday cards sent has dropped considerably since the mid-20th century: from 100 in 1958 to 28 in 2001. (And it’s very possible that that number has declined more since then.)

One reason for this shift: Modern life has gotten hectic. (Wasn’t technology supposed to make things easier?)

This change can be seen in those annual holiday letters, as the new common theme seems to be busyness. Ann Burnett, a communication professor from North Dakota State University, has been collecting holiday letters for quite a while and has amassed a collection of over 2000 of them. Over time, she’s noticed more and more writers talking about their families’ hectic schedules. And updates now tend toward the accomplishments of family members (“like a communal resume,” says Burnett).

For many, electronic cards have replaced paper greetings. They are obviously much more efficient (not to mention environmentally-friendly). Why address 40 envelopes when you can just send a holiday photo and message via email?

Some folks – especially those of younger generations – take it a step further and just create a holiday greeting for their Facebook page.

Traditionalists who prefer to send “real” cards must feel at least a little bit of envy. While they are spending hours hand-writing messages and stuffing envelopes, their counterparts are done with a few clicks of the mouse!

But take heart, paper card fans. It doesn’t seem like they’ll be going away any time soon. Even if it seems sometimes like younger generations are rejecting this “old-fashioned” tradition, a 2015 NPR article states that millennials prefer the nostalgia of paper cards to e-card technology. The revival of letterpress and boutique card creators seems to confirm this.

After all this time, there’s still something special about receiving a hand-addressed envelope in the mail.


For more on this festive time of year, check out our related blog post: From Magic to Memories: How We Experience the Holiday Season.