Whenever a major holiday rolls around, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find a greeting card in your mailbox, and the odds are pretty good it will be a Hallmark card. Here are a few things you may not know about the company that has become synonymous with “holidays.”
1. IT ALL STARTED WITH A HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT.
In 1910, Joyce “J.C.” Hall called it quits on high school and ventured from Norfolk, Neb. to Kansas City, Mo. with a plan to wholesale postcards. Hall and his brothers, Rollie and William, had previously tried to break into the postcard game in Nebraska without much luck, but in booming Kansas City, Hall could sell to a metro area and also take advantage of the city’s many rail connections to make quick sales trips to outlying towns. Soon business was strong enough for Rollie to join his brother, and the pair set up their own shop.
2. A TERRIBLE FIRE MADE HALLMARK’S SUCCESS POSSIBLE.
Things went well for the brothers until 1915, when a fire gutted their shop, taking their entire inventory with it. Undeterred, the pair took out a loan, bought an engraving company, and started creating unique designs they could market exclusively. The move was a hit. The Halls eventually saw the postcard business wane and moved into a new arena: Attractively printed greeting cards for holidays like Valentine’s Day.
3. THE COMPANY GETS CREDIT FOR CREATING WRAPPING PAPER.
Before 1917, getting your holiday gifts ready for their recipient was simple. You just concealed the gift in white, red, or green tissue paper and called it a day. Unfortunately, the Hall brothers ran out of tissue paper that year, but they still had customers clamoring for an elegant way to gussy up their presents. Rollie Hall cleverly offered to sell customers pieces of French paper he had bought for lining envelopes. Demand was so great over the holiday season and the following year that in 1919 the Halls started printing their own patterned gift wrap, and wrapping paper was suddenly a holiday staple.
4. THE HALLMARK NAME DIDN’T APPEAR UNTIL 1925.
J.C. Hall was a fan of the old hallmarks that goldsmiths used to sign their work. According to the company, Hall felt the name “Hallmark” was a fit because “it not only said quality in an authoritative way, but it also incorporated our family name.” The name first appeared in 1925, and by 1928 it was on every card the Hall brothers’ company sold. In 1954, Hall Brothers Inc. changed its name to Hallmark.
5. IT’S STILL A FAMILY COMPANY.
Over a century after its founding, Hallmark is still a private company, it’s still in Kansas City, and it’s still run by the Hall family. J.C. Hall’s son Donald J. Hall is chairman of the Hallmark board, while his son Donald Jr. is president and CEO of the company.
6. ONE ARTIST IS THE BABE RUTH OF GREETING CARDS.
The next time you see a Hallmark card depicting an adorable bear, kitten, angel, or child, take a peek to see if the art is signed with a simple “Mary.” Artist Mary Hamilton has been a Hallmark employee for over 60 years, and the creations she calls “cutes” have made her a legend among greeting card fans. (On her 55th Hallmark anniversary in 2010, a New York Times report quoted colleagues who called Hamilton “our rock star” and “Hallmark’s Cher.”) What’s the greatest greeting card artist of all time’s secret for capturing the cute? Not even Hamilton really knows—she has said, "I paint with a feeling in mind. I never have any set pattern. You learn to do it without quite realizing how."
7. AND ONE CARD RULES THEM ALL.
In over a century in business, Hallmark has created thousands of designs, but one is clearly the most successful. The “Pansy Card” depicting a pushcart full of the flowers with a note on the front reading “To Let You Know I’m Thinking of You” has been a sales juggernaut since its introduction for Mother’s Day 1939. The simple imagery and appropriate-to-almost-any-situation text have made it Hallmark’s longest-running offering.
8. HALLMARK GOT ON THE MICKEY MOUSE CRAZE EARLY.
It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when Disney characters weren’t splashed on every conceivable product. In 1932, the Halls were starting to dabble in licensing when the company signed a deal to create new greeting cards that showcased Walt Disney’s characters. Possibly helping the deal along: Disney was an elementary school classmate of J.C. Hall’s wife, Elizabeth. The license was a success and helped Hallmark weather the Great Depression.
9. HALLMARK OWNS CRAYOLA.
If you’ve bought the world’s most famous crayons since 1984, you may have picked up a Hallmark product without knowing it. Hallmark acquired Binney & Smith Inc., the parent company of Crayola, for $204 million, in part because Crayola had such high name recognition among shoppers.
10. THEY’VE PILED ON THE EMMYS.
Before they were safe and sentimental fare, Hallmark’s TV movies were literally Shakespearean tragedies. Hallmark Hall of Fame movies have been television staples since the company teamed with NBC to air Amahl and the Night Visitors in a Christmas Eve broadcast in 1951. Breaking into TV was a canny advertising move by J.C. Hall, who would later admit, “I do not have a philanthropic attitude toward culture. The simple truth is that good television is good business.”
That first special was such a hit that in 1953 Hallmark followed up with a televised version of Hamlet starring Maurice Evans that the company claims reached a larger audience than all previous productions of Hamlet combined. The success sparked more Shakespearean productions and original programming. Over 60 years later, the Hallmark Hall of Fame series has changed networks multiple times, but it’s still chugging along. With more the 250 movies, the series’ titles have combined to take home 81 Emmys.
11. YOU CAN THANK HALLMARK FOR RAINBOW BRITE.
Children of the 80s probably remember Rainbow Brite, the colorful adventurer who resided in Rainbow Land. What they might not know is that she was a creation Hallmark’s designers started working on in 1981 in an effort to find traction with girls in the three-to-seven age range. (The move was allegedly Hallmark’s counter to rival American Greetings’s success with its Strawberry Shortcake character.) At her peak, Rainbow Brite was one of the country’s top children’s media icons, complete with toys produced under license to Mattel, an animated TV series, and an animated feature film that received a theatrical release.
12. HALLMARK OWNS A FAMILY FRIENDLY COMPETITOR TO NETFLIX.
With over six decades in television production to its credit, the company has quite an archive. And it makes good use of it. Originally launched in 2007 by producer Rob Fried, Feeln is Hallmark’s streaming-video service that offers films and shorts that are “well-made and have positive messages for viewers all ages.” To make the cut for Feeln, a movie can’t include nudity, violence, or profanity, and the service also steers clear of “movies with divisive social issues or political agendas.” What makes the cut? In addition to the Hallmark Hall of Fame, current offerings include Look Who’s Talking, Hitch, and The Other Boleyn Girl.
13. THE COMPANY ASSEMBLED ONE OF THE GREATEST COLLECTIONS OF AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHY.
As a company, Hallmark doesn’t just create art. Since 1949, it has also been a collector and exhibitor. In 1964, the company began making acquisitions for a photography collection that would eventually become legendary. Hallmark’s holdings grew slowly at first, but after hiring curator Keith F. Davis in 1979, the company built an unrivaled portfolio of 6500 photographs covering the history of American photography from 1839 onward.
14. AND THEN THEY GAVE IT AWAY.
By the time Davis was done making purchases, Hallmark’s photography collection was both massive and important. It included 6500 works by 900 photographers. From early daguerreotypes to pieces by icons like Andy Warhol, Annie Liebovitz, Harry Callahan, and Alfred Stieglitz, the collection had a bit of everything, all of which contributed to its estimated $65 million value. What does a company do when it’s got such an important cultural property on its hands? In 2006, Hallmark donated the majority of the collection to Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, making the local institution one of the world’s foremost centers for photography history.