Mass-production greeting cards are store-bought sentiment. They are meant to convey endearing words to a friend or loved one on a special occasion.
Yet there is nothing individual or private about them. They are, in Barry Shank's apt phrase, "commodities of feeling."
So why does such a self-contradictory product fly off drugstore racks by the millions every day? In "A Token of My Affection," a probing study of the greeting-card industry, Shank grapples with the question.
The book aspires to be a scholarly treatise as well as a narrative covering 150 years of greeting-card history, although the result is unsatisfying on both counts.
Shank, a professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University, is a plodding storyteller. Some of the most promising angles -- how Joyce Hall astutely built Hallmark Cards into the industry's juggernaut, for example -- receive scant attention. Shank's analysis is jargon-ridden, reveling in big, fancy words like "interiority" and "rhizomatous."
Louis Prang, a Boston printer known for Civil War battle maps, had much to do with making the commercial Christmas card a runaway success. Prang applied advances in color lithography to the manufacture of Christmas cards, and by 1885 his Louis Prang & Co. dominated the domestic Christmas-card market.
To keep their machines running all year, card manufacturers developed products tied to a variety of occasions: birthdays, Mother's Day, Easter, and so on.
During the first half of the 20th century, greeting cards became truly a mass product, as sales soared 4,000 percent to almost $40 million in 1923 from $1 million in 1913. As large corporations became the dominant force in the American economy, the whole gestalt of greeting cards -- their "structures of feeling" -- also changed, according to Shank.
The new clichs and stereotypes spun out by the fast-growing greeting-card industry incorporated a mindset that served American corporate interests. Or so Shank argues.
Christmas cards, for example, favored such images as 18th-century aristocrats and idyllic scenes of little red houses with front doors open to a snowy outdoors -- images at odds with the reality of the 20th-century people who were sending and receiving the cards.
Shank acknowledges a bias for seeing modern American culture as shaped by corporate capitalism.
Hence, in his view, the Christmas-card imagery served corporate interests because, he says, it evokes "displaced friendships" that do not interfere with the geographic mobility and social instability of modern corporate life.
No surprise, then, that when Shank looks at recent greeting-card trends, he finds them in sway to large forces at work in the American economy.
Shank goes so far as to declare that "the era of the modern greeting card is largely over." Noting a tilt toward an absurdist or antisentimental tone ("How would you like a large check?" the outside of a Hi Brow card asks, and on the inside there is a big check mark), Shank has an explanation.
The postmodernist shift, he says, with more verve than clarity, reflects "the failure of business culture to deliver emotional and material abundance."