An American Hallmark

Americana, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on February 12, 2006

When Pam Kelley, of Olathe, Kan., is out in the "real world," she freely admits to eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers and studying the behaviors of her closest friends.

"That’s where some of the best ideas come from," says Kelley, 47, senior editorial director at Hallmark Cards Inc. in Kansas City, Mo.

Such behavior is not only tolerated at the world’s largest greeting card company, but encouraged. In fact, Kelley’s conduct likely would have pleased Joyce C. Hall, who founded Hallmark Cards in 1910. For much of the company’s early success can be attributed to Hall being equally observant.

"He told us about watching people shop in the early days," says his grandson Donald Hall Jr., 50, president and CEO of Hallmark Cards. According to company history, the Hallmark patriarch watched curiously as customers perused his early greeting cards, taking careful notes as they looked at each one. "He would write their comments on the cards and match the comments with how well each card sold."

Hall’s grandfather was 18 when he boarded a train in Norfolk, Neb. (pop. 23,578), and came to Kansas City with a pocket full of change, two boxes of postcards and an entrepreneurial spirit. His postcard business grew, and Hall soon recognized how giving cards, particularly on special occasions, gave people pleasure and even seemed to satisfy an emotional need. He began printing high-quality cards that could be folded, inserted in envelopes and mailed—something that hadn’t been done before. The greeting cards launched with Valentine’s Day themes and later Christmas themes, and were unique because they included holiday greetings.

"He believed that relationships with family and friends were most important, worth nurturing and protecting by doing those little things that let people know you care," Hall says. "He wanted to make the very best cards because he saw excellence and quality as extensions of caring."

Even today, nurturing relationships between family and friends remains the ultimate goal of each greeting on a Hallmark card.

"I start most of the time by thinking of my family and the people in my life," says Suzanne Berry, a writer on Hallmark’s Valentine’s Day team, who carries a notebook to jot down inspirational ideas as she interacts with family and friends.

On most desks at Hallmark’s corporate offices are stacks of plain white 3-by-5-inch cards. Joyce C. Hall carried similar cards in his pocket and believed any idea too long to fit on a 3-by-5-inch card was not a good idea.

During periodic creative planning sessions, writers fold the cards in half and scribble cover and interior ideas. Several dozen ideas develop, then the cards are tossed in a pile and an editorial director reads the verses aloud for feedback from staff members.

Hallmark Cards, a privately owned company, has more than 18,000 full-time employees worldwide with about 4,500 working at the Kansas City headquarters. Surprisingly, just 60 writers are responsible for creating all Hallmark greeting cards. In fact, only about a dozen writers created the 1,500 messages available for this year’s Valentine’s Day cards.

One of Hallmark’s best-selling Valentine’s cards was introduced in 2004 and has sold more than 100,000 copies. The tender card, which conveys feelings of falling "in love over and over again," was created by 50-something John Peterson, a Harley-Davidson-riding, tattooed former oil rig worker who has poetry books at his desk.

"Sometimes I get started by just writing a letter to my wife," says Peterson, who creates about 150 cards a year—about 50 of which actually make it to store shelves. "Sometimes the occasions of my life come into play, but I’m always looking for that kernel of truth in the human experience."

To keep writers and artists fresh and in touch with the tempo of American culture, Hallmark invests in the creative process by bringing poet laureates, fashion designers and similar artistic spirits to the workplace. A Valentine’s Day team may spend an afternoon watching romance movies while a humor-writing team laughs at reruns of television comedies.

"My grandfather was neither a writer nor an artist, but he understood people and he believed that greeting cards could make their lives better," Hall says.

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