“My Mama Did Appreciate the Card”: The History of Holidays and Cards

  There are very few people in the United States who have not received some sort of card, whether it be a card for your birthday, or a post card from the trip a good friend took, cards have been flowing across the country, and have been since their earliest introductions. In researching postal records, the Postmaster General’s reports noted in 1875 107,616,000 postal cards were mailed.[1] In an analytical article from 1935 the writer claims, “estimates made a few years ago indicate that the production of such cards reaches about 1,500,000,000 per year, or nearly 12 cards to every man, woman, and child, in the United States.”[2] So cards have always been around, and they continue to remain around now. But did you know when you study cards, you aren’t just studying their appearance, you’re studying three unique types of cards. The Postal Card, the Post Card, and then the Greeting Card. These cards while similar, do have some differences. This blog will explore those differences, and explore their important roles in popular culture, especially when you are dealing with a pretty frequent letter writer, just like we have with Flannery O’Connor herself. I will also make examples of this with cards from our collection, ones owned by Flannery herself and her family. 

            Postal cards were first seen in Germany in the 1870s. Immediately popular, these cards could be sent for a flat rate, with a stamp included, which proved to be economical and efficient. They were simple, and they were cheap. But they filled a new void in the American space. A space for cheaper letters, and for mass communication. They sold massively, and sold massively for many years. In fact, they sold more units than postcards until 1965, with an impressive 1,095,000,000 units sent to the 1,284,000,000 post cards sent the same year.[3] And to speak to their popularity there are still these kinds of cards are still sent to this day, the type of object called the “Stamped Card,” which have the same function as the postal card of the past. These cards are small and can be mailed with a small flat fee, but they do have a little bit more decoration on them now.   

An example Postal Card. Featured in the Drop Me a Card Exhibit.
2022.1.3, gift of The Flannery O’Connor – Andalusia Foundation

            The Post Card came at a unique time, as leisure travel became more popular. This new leisure time increased the amount of travel, and the desire to sell postcards and souvenirs. “Souvenir post cards, typically carrying a photograph of a tourist site on one side, enabled travelers to demonstrate the wonders they had seen, to provide objective evidence of their own travels, to bring the world back home. They were cheap testimonials to the pleasures of leisure travel and the joys of visual representation.”[4] These cards could also be personalized, and they could be printed easily. This novelty, increase in manufacturing capability, and newly expanded postal service, led to a boom of sales in the early twentieth century, a so called “golden age.”[5] Flannery’s family in fact made several post cards from their own family photos, and she herself collected some sent to her from various locations across the country, and some of her greeting cards she saved are styled to look like post cards. The post card really made a big cultural impact on the way that Americans communicated.  

Postcard made with a postcard of Edward O’Connor. 2019.1.621, gift of Louise Florencourt

            The Greeting Card is an evolution of the Post Card. Sharing the private company origins, and the detailed message. However, it had two advantages over the post card. It was a larger item, meaning that you could put more of a message on it, and it was private. With both postal and post cards their message is open to the public, anyone can see it. But with greeting cards the message is hidden behind the flap. It also allows the designer to create more space, and even make more designs inside the card, giving more space to visual language as well as more actual language, which began to form clichés and their own language. “These cards were flexible social tools,” and could be used for more functions than just a postcard, they could be used to communicate many messages, about many different holidays.”[6] And as holidays began to expand the opportunities to sell cars continued to grow, “Greeting cards especially, with an expanded emphasis on printed sentiments, were increasingly available for almost any holiday, special occasion, or life passage. With the formation of the National Association of Greeting Cards Manufacturers in 1914, the greeting card industry was given national organization; between 1913 and 1928, its estimate annual trade surged from $10 million to $60 million.”[7]

Christmas card sent to Regina O’Connor while she was still living in Savannah. 2022.1.4a gift of the Flannery O’Connor – Andalusia Foundation.

            The card industry continues to thrive to this day, with Hallmark reporting that 1.3 billion cards were sent for Christmas, 40 million for Easter, and 113 million for Mother’s Day.[8] Flannery had all of these cards. She had greeting cards from different friends, family, ones that she made, and ones that were never sent. Whether it was card drawn by her child hand, a card mailed to her from a friend she made in Mexico, or a blank one she meant to send, Flannery left a legacy of cards, and looking at their history you can see how they were used, but also how she emerged into card writing as the industry found its own legs during her lifetime. Flannery utilized the wonderful tool of the card, made it her own, and shared her thought with the world like the millions of others. She made the card a medium for her words. 

[1] Historian, United States Postal Service, “Stamped Cards and Postcards,” 2014, https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/stamped-cards-and-postcards.pdf.

[2] Octavia Goodbar, “Cards,” Current History, vol. 47, no.3, (1937):  56

[3] Historian, United States Postal Service, “Stamped Cards and Postcards,” 2014, https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/stamped-cards-and-postcards.pdf.

[4] Barry Shank, A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (New York: Columbia University Press: 2004), 126-7

[5] Historian, United States Postal Service, “Stamped Cards and Postcards,” 2014, https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/stamped-cards-and-postcards.pdf.

[6] Barry Shank 125

[7] Leigh Eric Schmidt, “The Commercialization of the Calendar: American Holidays and the Culture of Consumption,” The Journal of American History, vol. 78, No. 3 (1991): 899

[8] “Christmas” Hallmark, accessed 04/13/2022, https://corporate.hallmark.com/holidays-occasions/christmas/; “Easter”, Hallmark, accessed 04/13/2022, https://corporate.hallmark.com/holidays-occasions/easter/; “Mother’s Day”, Hallmark, accessed 04/13/2022, https://corporate.hallmark.com/holidays-occasions/mothers-day/.

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