TEN CENT SENTIMENT
ERIC R. ADAMS
ONCE upon a time, in a land far away across the sea, a warmhearted gentleman with side whiskers picked up his quill pen and wrote letters to several of his friends to wish them a merry Christmas. He dried the ink with a dusting of sand, dispatched his greetings by messenger... and never stopped to consider the consequences of his kindly, impulsive act.
He didn’t dream that eager youngsters would start calling at your door in August to sell you a dozen assorted Christmas cards for a dollar. He couldn’t imagine the straining crowds at the stationery counters, plucking Christmas cards from the racks at five cents to $1.50 each. He saw no visions of girls tinting chicken feathers, printers trying to make ink stick to sandpaper, or a jury of 14 good men and serious weighing the relative sales appeal of one Y uletide “sentiment” against another.
And few of the Canadians who just now are pouring $10 millions into cash registers to express their good will toward men have any idea of the complexity and headaches of the industry which they have boomed to five times its size in 10 years, as they sought commercial aid in wishing their friends—like the man with the quill pen—“a very merry Christmas.”
And Christmas is scarcely half of it—though it is the biggest single “producer,” accounting for 150 million cards sold in Canada this year. To Canada’s 36 greeting card manufacturers, most of them in Toronto with three or four in Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver, the year is just one happy occasion after another.
New Year’s is just a large drop in the bucket compared with Dec. 25, but then comes Valentine’s, with the sales graphs hitting a healthy peak, then St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s and Father’s Day, Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving, not to mention special religious events like the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. Each one swells the total—yet all
these special events together, excluding Christmas, can’t equal the year-in-and-out sale of cards wishing you a happy birthday, many more golden wedding days, or saying thanks for the invitation to your party.
Christmas Comes in April
DREAMING up ideas, creating designs, writing sentiments and putting the finished product together in assembly line style keep 3,500 people on the hustle. Nor does this include thousands of paper and envelope makers, printers and lithographers, or the girls who color the chicken feathers for that comic card for Uncle Gus. And all these people have one calendar-baffling thing in common: Christmas comes but once a year, but to them it comes in April.
They were sweating out their final Christmas production problems while you were sweating on the beach-r-and while you are buying that last emergency dozen to mail to friends who unexpectedly send Christmas cards to you, their heads will be awhirl with Easter bunnies and Hallowe’en pumpkins for 1947.
The Christmas card idea first spread from England to the shores of America about 100 years ago, when gentlefolk of good breeding took to asking the local printer to whip Continued on page 51
Creating the 150 million Christmas cards swapped by Canadians each Yuletide takes plenty of sand, sentiment, holly and horsehair
Continued from page 24
them up something cheery but dignified to send to their friends. Louis Prang, Boston, printed the first commercial Christmas card produced on this continent, for Charles Dickens, during the author’s tour on this side—a simple effort featuring a sprig of Christmas
greens and the wish, “Lord keep my memory green.” By the turn of the century greeting cards were already becoming a big business, in which anything can happen and still does.
This year’s cards feature not only Christmas greens—sometimes visible through trick “Cellophane” windows— but also such novel accessories as little bags of sterilized sand, strands of horsehair, shreds of tobacco and aspirin
tablets. But before card manufacturers start shopping around for such raw materials, an idea must be born, a design created, a sentiment composed. And, please—never call it a “verse” or a “greeting” ... in the card game it’s always a sentiment.
Although 80 to 90% of the Christmas cards which Canadians buy are made in this country, most of the designs are imported. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t some important Canadian-designed leaders on the market.
Two companies make cards from fine Canadian paintings, and they’re tremendous sellers all over Canada. The artists do all right too: pay for greeting card rights to a painting starts at about $70, and usually means $200 to $400 to a reasonably good artist. Once an artist was paid $2,500—just once. The works of 16 different artists are offered this year by one firm.
Each company has its own ideas on designs, based on past experience, and sometimes a trick testing method. Selected dealers may be offered an extra discount for an early order, so that the manufacturer can see which cards are going to be most popular.
“I choose all our designs myself,” says the white-haired president of one of the smaller Christmas card companies, which turns out about 70 designs a year. He refuses to touch anything tricky, and says that the more conventional a card is the better the public likes it. His cards, in other words, are well-sprinkled with candles, Christmas trees, the Three Wise Men and other routine motifs. The same gentleman writes his own verses, and he won’t exceed four lines.
“Two lines are better still,” he reports, and he says that nonrhyming greetings are becoming more popular.
One of Canada’s biggest greeting card makers, the William E. Coutts Co. Ltd., turns out Christmas cards to more than 1,100 different designs, and the art department of their American affiliate is the second biggest in the world . . . only Walt Disney’s is bigger.
Gentlemen of the Jury
This company maintains a Christmas card “jury” which sits in on showings of card designs. The whole thing is much like a fashion parade. Each of the participants is an old card hand who is a pretty shrewd judge of what will sell and what won’t. This “brain trust” suggests changes in design, in color or in the printed sentiment, and not until a unanimous okay from each of 14 people is obtained is the card released for production.
For planning purposes card makers don’t worry too much about the appeal of specific designs, but try instead to keep track of the public’s response to certain broad trends in design. Take the matter of “modern Christmas symbols,” a term which obligingly embraces such items as bells, holly, candles, poinsettias, Christmas wreaths and so on. A survey reveals that one out of four persons favor cards which fall into this bracket. Although humorous Christmas cards bring in a good many dollars, their total sale falls far behind that of straightforward sentimental cards.
If you’re over 45, incidentally, you’ll buy only one third as many comic cards as someone under 30—but don’t call them comic, ever! Humorous cards is the only term acceptable to “the industry,” unless you’re talking about those gargoyles the kiddies love to send teacher on Valentine’s.
It’s only on humorous cards, by the way, that you are apt to find the word “Xmas.” Almost all Canada’s card companies make it a must to spell
“Christmas” in full on all their other designs, and the more sentimental the card the more sternly the rule is applied. At least one company refuses to use the word “Xmas” on any of its cards, even for a gag.
There’s not much difference in the design preferences of people in the various provinces. Quebeckers, who are bigger buyers of cards for New Year’s than for Christmas anyway, show a slight preference for scenic cards. Westerners prefer more elaborate cards, while Maritime residents go in for simplicity. If it means anything, these same Easterners are far greater users of sympathy cards than other Canadians.
What goes inside a card . . . Christmas or otherwise ... is the subject of a lot of head scratching. “The wording,” as the man on the street calls a sentiment, means everything.
Canadian card makers don’t buy much from free-lance writers, although one big company does take an occasional item. Neither do they employ full-time sentiment writers. Anything that has to be done along this line is usually turned out, on assignment, by someone who understands the needs of the industry but whose chief work is something else. There’s no one in Canada who makes verse writing for Canadian companies a full-time occupation.
Free-lance writers who do submit usable material to card publishers,
however, are usually paid 50 cents a line, and verses range from four to 16 lines. If this sounds like easy money, it merely shows that you’ve no idea of vrhat a difficult business it is to create modern greeting card sentiments, a far cry from the days when almost anything could be used . . . and was! Take this bit of corn from a 1927 Christmas card:
’Tis only a simple greeting,
I send with heart sincere,
To brighten up your Christmas And fill your day with cheer.
Today’s greeting card editor would scream at the sight of it, and if he permitted the use of such a verse he’d soon be looking for a new job. In the first place it’s poorly written, and in the second place contractions like “ ’tis” are taboo, because people don’t talk that way.
Hearts Without Flowers
Modern greeting card verse must never use words or expressions that aren’t used in ordinary speech. Flowery language is out and, as a final point, so are inverted word orders, so that writers can’t talk about “heart sincere” or use other cart - before - the - horse terms.
The list of forbidden words and phrases would gag a reindeer. Here are a few of them: ’neath, ’mongst,
natal day, wondrous, pal o’ mine, wee one, beauteous, joyous, fond . . . all banned because they sound affected or have been overused.
Sincerity is important, so that verses claiming to have been “written just for you” are out. A verse that needs fancy punctuating won’t sell either, because most people pause at the end of each line whether they’re supposed to or not.
Verse writers have another headache. Any reference to “I” limits the sale of a card, since two or more people can’t use it. The word “friend” means that a card can’t be sent to a relative, while “dear” and “love” and other affectionate terms make it impossible to send it to a casual acquaintance. Every restriction lops off sales possibilities, and that’s bad business. The right sort of verse allows a card to be sent by anyone to anyone, except, of course, in cases where the card is especially designed for a certain person, which is a different thing.
Relative cards head the list of these specials with “Mother,” “Father,” “Sweetheart” and “Wife” well out in front. But if you think a handful of cards directed to such people as brother, sister, cousin and grandmother complete the picture you are sadly underestimating the ingenuity of the boys who think up the designs.
As well as such old-timers as “Merry Christmas to My Pal” or “Christmas Greetings to My Friend’s Mother,” there is a nice little 10-cent item directed to “My Boss.” A card especially designed for your doctor or dentist is also available, and may make him forget that you owe him money. Then there is a card for nurses and another for ministers.
By this time you won’t be surprised to hear of the card headed “Merry Christmas to the Milkman,” although a good many people won’t feel like sending it this year. No
one has done anything about the butcher, but you can never tell what next season will bring.
Oddly—perhaps sadly—in-laws are somewhat neglected, although a design or two is available. “There’s no money in it,” card makers explain. And—apparently having exhausted all human subject matter—the final item is a Christmas card labelled “From Our Dog to Your Dog.”
All verses for these special cards, incidentally, are done to order, so don’t swamp some card maker with your ideas for a swell sentiment for fourth cousins or grandaunts.
A Card for Aunt Flo
But when designers and sentimentalizes have done with creating that 15cent Christmas card you will eventually send to Aunt Flossie, the production men must roll up their sleeves for the big chore of preparing it for you and perhaps 30,000 other people to buy.
Although the greeting card industry uses just about every means of reproduction known, most cards today are produced by a very ancient process called lithography, which in its modern form is still unbeatable for certain types of fine color work. Aunt Flossie’s card features seven colors, which means that it had to go through the presses seven times, because the type of lithography used to make good grade greeting cards necessitates a run for each color. Some cheaper cards are printed by ordinary “letterpress” methods, four colors at once, but they’re largely the kind you’d find in lower-priced boxed assortments. Good cards permit fewer production short cuts.
Lithographed cards race through j
the press at 4,000 sheets an hour, 20 different cards to the sheet, arranged for easy cutting. The men who cut the cards from the finished sheets are experts who work to a tolerance of one sixty-fourth of an inch. Sloppily cut cards won’t fold properly and may show white edges where they shouldn’t.
Folding the fancier cards calls for a surprising amount of handwork, which runs up the cost. A card of conventional shape and size which has no cut-out parts can be machinefolded at a neat 8,000 an hour. Otherwise girl operators do the job by hand, and the Coutts Company employs 300 girl operators, most of whom earn $22 to $27 a week. A full-time teacher instructs new girls, and classes in the company school run to a dozen or so, pupils graduating in two weeks.
It so happens that Aunt Flossie’s card has a Christmas tree shaped opening cut through the front; that was done with a steel die on a printing press, but it involves another operation. A glittering green paper shows through the cut-out Christmas tree and this involves a hand operation to stick down the paper, and an extra spot of glue inside to stick the two folds of card together. Elaborate cards may require 40 strategically placed glue spots.
The trade calls such cards “appliques” with their intricate attachments of ribbons, bows and laces, their inserts of silver paper or ‘Cellophane.” More exotic items are the sand, tobacco, horsehair and aspirin tablets mentioned earlier, all featured on humorous cards — although card makers will tell you that headache tablets are handy items to have around anyway. The sand was washed and sterilized before being packed in tiny bags and attached to each card. The horsehair was sterilized too, and the headache tablets involved obtaining permission from their manufacturer
and acireful reproduction of the bottle they usually come in.
Many cards are hand-tinted. Others get a coating of “diamond dust,” glittery stuff that’s powdered on by the ton. One company has a “top secret” method for putting on “flock,” that soft-colored stuff that looks and feels like felt—actually sheered rayon Instead of being sifted haphazardly over a coating of glue, so that it falls any way it wants to, it obligingly falls end up. Result—a thicker luxurious coating and better sales appeal.
Then there’s that ingenious novelty card printed on sandpaper. What sandpaper does to the presses, not to mention the people who run them, is something to imagine. Pressmen are currently worrying about what sort of material designers will dream up for next year.
The merchandising campaign behind the sale of 150 million Christmas cards exploits every medium except the slot machine. Over-the-counter sale of individual cards leads the Christmas parade. Incidentally—or did you guess?—the price trend is up: wartime production restrictions
banned anything over a 25-cent card, but today you can go as high as $1.50 for your special names list.
Boxed assortments come next, and when the presses start running in April it’s usually these cards that get first attention. Stacks of boxed assortments are sold to dealers on the promise of extremely early delivery. That’s so they can startle you into really doing your Christmas shopping early by staging a big Christmas display in the middle of August.
Equally early reminders of Christmas appear at your door in the guise of bright-eyed agents who produce sample books of personal greeting cards on hot summer afternoons and try to line you up for a few dozen. Personal cards have everything the others have, with your own name inserted. Agents range from Mrs. Jones’ little boy, who concentrates on friends and
neighbors, to professional hustlers At least one such supersalesman earns himself several thousand dollars per Christmas. On the average good agents earn $300 to $400 a season on commissions of 30 to 50% To make thousands you have to hire sev eral assistants.
Most Canadians confine persone] orders to lots of two or three dozen, with prices starting at a dollar and working up to six dollars or more An agent in personals hits the jack pot if he can land an order from den Lists or doctors. One Toronto doctor sends cards to 1,800 patients and friends, and a Toronto dentist mails 2,000. Really big-time are the com pany orders; one china manufacturer and a typewriter company both send out in the neighborhood of 15.000 cards every Christmas one of the
reasons that the post office takes on 19,000 temporary employees come Christmas time.
What happens to old Christmas cards? Mr. Jonathon King, who apparently took Christmas cards rather seriously, got together a collection of 163,000 different cards which filled 700 volumes and weighed over six tons. But that was 50 years ago, and nowadays probably nobody goes in for such rugged collecting
Some people treat their cards like old razor blades and try to think up useful things to do with them. A horsewoman saved cards with hunting scenes to make an attractive «creen for her living room Some comic —pardon us—humorous cards, put in bright colored frames, will liven up Junior’s bedroom.
A generous number of Christmas cards find their way to hospitals for scrapbook use, but most are lucky to enjoy a brief moment of glittery glory on the family mantelpiece, between Christmas and New Year’s. Then they go out with the ashes. ^