This is the time of year to observe a curious springtime phenomenon. (And no, it’s not just the equinox sun crossing the celestial equator.) Head over to any pharmacy or big box store and you can watch it: Scores of adults standing in the greeting card aisle, reading every Mother’s Day card on the rack until they find the right one.
If you’ve done this yourself (or plan to), you’ve got plenty of company. Not only are Americans expected to drop $23.6 billion on Mother’s Day this year (this according to the National Retail Federation), but nearly 78 percent of that money will be spent on cards.
Generally speaking, that means Hallmark cards. Not only does the Kansas City-based greeting card colossus have just over a 51 percent share of America’s $4.6 billion card business, per IBISWorld data, Mother’s Day is among its bread-and-butter occasions. Hallmark estimates that moms receive 118 billion cards on Mother’s Day. As the company’s marketing vp Lindsey Roy said, “It’s a big deal for us.”
What’s more, the vast majority of those Mother’s Day cards are paper ones, the e-card threat having largely fizzled. Heavy stock cards are still regarded “as one of the most meaningful ways to connect,” Roy said. “It’s the tangibility factor. You can reread it, save it. It’s really a keepsake.”
There are those who take a cynical view of Hallmark, calling it the “General Motors of emotion,” a company that cranks out sentiments that Americans are incapable of articulating themselves. Some go so far as to claim that Mother’s Day is a “Hallmark Holiday”—created for the express purpose of selling cards (and flowers, of course).
But Hallmark seems no more responsible for inarticulateness than restaurants are for people who can’t cook. What’s more, Hallmark didn’t invent Mother’s Day. It was a Virginia woman named Anna Jarvis who wished to honor her own mother, a Civil War nurse, in 1908. Jarvis lobbied hard for her holiday until Woodrow Wilson gave it the presidential nod in 1914.
At the time, greeting cards as we know them didn’t even exist yet. Then in 1915, a young man named Joyce Clyde Hall (who’d been selling postcards in Kansas City since 1910) partnered with his brother Rollie and started making folding cards that fit into envelopes. (Americans, Hall realized, wanted greater privacy in their correspondence.) By 1928, the Hall Brothers’ “mark of quality” became the company’s new name: Hallmark.
The Hallmark brand has since been associated with everything from Disney characters to Crayola, which it’s owned since 1984. But that name will somehow always be synonymous with cards—Mother’s Day cards in particular. And why? Other holidays, Roy ventured, involve giving cards to multiple people. But Mother’s Day, of course, fetes only mom. “It’s about recognizing one of the single most important people that anyone has in his life,” she said.