- A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture
Barry Shank has written a history of commercially produced greeting cards in the United States. Using vocabulary, concepts, and the terrifically long sentences common to cultural studies, Shank argues that greeting cards reveal the emotional life of card-buying Americans. That inner life, he argues, was fundamentally "conditioned" and "structured" by American business culture. Many business historians will find Shank's book challenging to read and not always convincing. If they persevere, and occasionally suspend empirical demands, they will discover an intellectually rich, deeply researched history of a mass-produced consumer good whose success depends on its ability to connect people emotionally.
Shank argues convincingly that greeting cards are a marvelous source for understanding how people communicate important feelings. He shows that, since the mid-nineteenth century, an increasing number of Americans—some eight billion cards a year are currently sold—have used greeting cards to share feelings of love, friendship, sympathy, and so many other basic emotions with one another. By the early twentieth century, Shank reveals, greeting card manufacturers understood themselves to be in the business of representing "the relationship between the sender and the receiver" (p. 10). To assure marketplace viability, the manufacturers had to find language and images that thousands of people, at the least, found expressive of the emotions they individually wanted to convey to a unique person. Such "purchased sentiments" had to "speak the emotional truths of mainstream American culture" (p. 12). If they did not, the cards would not sell. Shank attempts to explain why certain card-deployed feelings seemed to sell best at given times.
He argues that greeting card messages reveal three distinct eras in American emotional life. In line with other scholars, Shank describes the years between 1840 and 1890 as a time when a "culture [End Page 538] of sentiment" dominated the American middle class. Greeting cards, primarily valentines (the first major commercial greeting card type), conveyed "agentive subjectivity," or a sense that the sender had an authentic, individuated inner life that he or she was willing and able to convey honestly. At a time when market relations based on transactions between strangers were becoming normative, this kind of personal testimony, Shank argues, was socially useful and emotionally gratifying. Shank concludes, "Nineteenth century valentines can help us see the complex structures of feeling that connected private emotional life and public business at this crucial moment in the development of commercial society" (p. 23).
Between 1906 and 1957, Shank argues, a second type of emotional communication became dominant. Because of the rise of the modern corporation, he believes, greeting card messages primarily served "to establish the objectivity of an emotional relationship in a culture that emphasized the mobility and fungibility of feeling" (p. 10). Shank means that Big Business created a set of emotional contradictions. On the one hand, people needed to get along at work and even to like one another—and often, they really did. On the other hand, employees had to be attentive to corporate hierarchy, work discipline, and the shifting possibilities of their employment. These contradictions, Shank argues, produced cards that depended on "comfortable . . . clichés supported by an earnest insistence on their sincerity, the nostalgic illustrations of person and home, and the indirect longing for the personal" (p. 168). According to Shank, throughout much of the twentieth century greeting card manufacturers made money by offering consumers cards that rejected emotional eloquence or depth but provided, instead, a casually communicated sense of valued social connection. This kind of emotional work fit people's needs, he suggests, in a corporate-dominated era.
Sometime in the late twentieth century another era commenced. Shank tells us, "I cannot recount the larger story of the emotional history of the United States during the second half of the twentieth century" (p. 249). Instead he tells us that by the mid-1980s, Hallmark Cards, aware of the era's spectacular emotional and economic fracturing, threw off the...