“Thanks so much for your letter & the cards with the Flowers from the Holy Land”: Sentiment in Greeting Cards.

            Cards have been a part of American culture for over a hundred years at this point, and there is a good reason for that.  As the card developed they served more functions for more holidays, and more emotions, used as a shorthand for the feelings you send to others, “the cards, therefore, had to perform important emotional work.”[1] Cards have their own language to share feelings, making and sharing what is truly meant through a select set of images, colors, and chosen words, sharing what is there for just a few moments. In an article from 1937, during Flannery’s lifetime author Octavia Goodbar writes, “The actual sentiment, however, is the true heart of the custom. This is clearly shown by the fact that more than 95 percent of all cards purchased are cards which carry not only a mere greeting, but also some message of sincere and friendly remembrance.”[2] Cards show sentiment, they communicate feelings, and have developed a specific set of language with symbols and colors, communicating feelings and cultural norms all through the colors on printed paper. 

            The first heavily marketed cards were comedic valentines that featured limericks and mean-spirited illustrations. The comedic valentines poked fun at the culture it was surrounding, and the gender roles that existed within society, as well as the individual that was receiving the valentine. “The disruptions of uncertain class status drove the popularity of comic valentines, producing a taste for the particular pleasures that one could derive from mocking the ambitions, desires, and tastes of others competing for a meaningful place in an anxious world.”[3] These comic valentines that stormed onto the market featured caricatures of these individuals, using extreme shapes and lines to make jokes out of their appearance and status. A rich man may be shown with an exaggerated hat, or very large shoes, a banker may have an exaggerated nose, and a maid might be drawn as an ancient crone, “working class women employed outside or inside the home were equally likely to receive barbs addressed to their occupation. Along with the frequent depiction of maids, the nursemaid and the milliner were common objects of vicious sentiments.”[4] This base of mocking and cultural commentary laid a foundation for commentary in cards, but also creating a system of representation that could be referenced and understood by the masses. The general viewer would understand the settings and they symbolism, the clichés that would convey as much of the message as the word would. 

            Cards are a visual medium, and like many other visual mediums it relies heavily on symbolism that a cultural whole can understand. This understanding allows for the card to serve its desired role, and convey the intended emotion. Each card pulled on the symbolism in order to create the emotion that it desired, they have a symbol, “the cards for each holiday had their own common inanimate motifs. Christmas cards displayed its expected trees, candles, holly, and fireplaces; Thanksgiving, its pumpkins and corn tassels; Easter, its lilies. In each of these cases, the motif contributed a visual centering of the card along with familiar traditional symbols of the season. But often the central figure on the front of the cards was an animate body – either human or animal.”[5] These are figures like the sun child in the card made by Flannery O’Connor. The center of the main image is a little girl with the sun for a head, and bows in the rays of her hair. This figure is a clear one, probably a representation of Flannery herself. And the bright face and the bright colors are clear representations of the love and well wishes she put into every line. It is a charm and symbolism used by children, that share just as much to the adults that see them. 

A birthday card drawn by Flannery O’Connor as a child.
2018.1.1325 gift of the Flannery O’Connor – Andalusia Foundation

            Flannery received many cards, some that she enjoyed, thanking the sender, some she did not care for nearly as much. She writes of her time in Emory Hospital, “but now I am home again and not receiving any more cards that say to a dear sick friend, in verse, what’s worse.”[6] And all of the cards she received are exercises in understanding the visual culture. The cards sent to give a get well soon sentiment had images like angels, flowers, and ribbons, feminine things with soft edges, meant to provide a comforting and healing aura. And the words also call that, using their coded language. One speaking of soft caring, the other calling on a religious tradition, with the religious tradition being the more explicit of the two in language. Christmas cards from the collection feature snowflakes, copied Christmas hymns and bells. Again these are codes meant to imply and show the feelings that were felt, “The resulting vocabulary became so condensed that it would nearly implode with meaning and affect. Like workhorses of sentiment, the clichés that trod across the inside of greeting cards had to pull such emotional weight that they could not worry about looking pretty. They had a job to do. They had to absorb the multitudinous intentions of the sender and then release them with respectful sincerity when opened by the receiver.”[7]

One of the get well soon cards Flannery recieved while in Emory Hospital
2020.1.11, gift of the Flannery O’Connor – Andalusia Foundation

            Modern cards have a lot of that first comedic valentine in them. Jokes about appearance, age, and wealth re-entered as main comedic points, as does an increased reliance on pun-based humor, and references to culturally significant shows such as The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Schitt’s Creek. And the card industry has also expanded into new spaces, or as Shank puts it “the conditions of greeting card production changed dramatically between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1990s. The language off greeting cards changed as well, not in lockstep with the fundamental economic and social transformations, but in fluid response.”[8] With the increase in the number of digital spaces and digital consumption, there has been an increase in digital cards, with e-card companies emerging to fill the new space needed. 

            Flannery O’Connor had many cards and mentions them throughout her letters. She used them to communicate with the outside world as much as the outside world used them to communicate with her. The card is a wonderful tool, just as much then as it is now. The symbolism may have changed, but the function is still the same. Sharing feelings and communicating with the world, one card at a time. 

[1] Barry Shank, A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (New York: Columbia University Press: 2004) 219.

[2] Octavia Goodbar, “Cards,” Current History, vol. 47, no. 3, (1937), 58.

[3] Barry Shank 43.

[4] Ibid 49.

[5] Ibid 177.

[6] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979),  53.

[7] Barry Shank 217.

[8] Ibid 248.

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