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Joyce Clyde Hall The Midwestern boy created the modern greeting-card industry, despite losing his first batch of Valentine's Day cards to fire--at a time when Christmas and Valentine's Day were the only card-giving holidays.

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Lester Balajadia / Shutterstock

Joyce Clyde Hall
Founder of Hallmark Cards Inc.
Founded: 1910

"Good taste is good business."-Joyce Clyde Hall

When 18-year-old Joyce Clyde Hall stepped off a train in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1910, he didn't have much-just a battered suitcase and two shoeboxes of picture postcards. Full of youthful enthusiasm, J.C. (as he preferred to be called) was determined to make his mark on the business world. He had big plans and the energy to make them happen. And happen they would-over the next 56 years, Hall would create a new industry and build the world's largest greeting-card company.

Hall's early life was marked by a nearly constant struggle to overcome abject poverty. His father, an itinerant preacher, abandoned his family, leaving Hall and his two older brothers to provide for their semi-invalid mother. He took his first job as a farm hand at age 8, and a year later he was selling cosmetics and soap door to door for the California Perfume Company (which later became Avon).

In 1902, Hall's older brothers moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, and opened a bookstore. Not long after, the rest of the family joined them, and Hall went to work in the store for $18 per month. Believing there was a large local market for postcards imported from Europe, Hall and his brothers established Norfolk Post Card Co. when he was 16. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough local demand to keep the company in business. Realizing there might be a larger market for postcards outside Norfolk, Hall quit school, packed two shoeboxes full of postcards and headed for Kansas City.

When Hall arrived in Kansas City, he had only enough money to rent a small room at the YMCA, which served as his home, office and stockroom for the next year. He sent out packets of 100 postcards to dealers throughout the Midwest in hopes of starting a successful mail order business. Some of the dealers kept the cards without paying. Others returned the unsolicited merchandise with angry notes. But about one-third of the dealers sent the young entrepreneur a check. In just a few months he had earned $200.

Despite his initial success, Hall believed illustrated postcards were a passing fad, so he added a line of imported Christmas and Valentine's Day cards. Within a year his brother Rollie joined him in the business, and by 1912 the Hall Brothers logo started appearing on greeting cards. J.C. and Rollie further expanded their line and opened retail stores in Kansas City and Chicago.

Just when success seemed to be within the brothers' grasp, disaster struck. In 1915, just a few weeks before Valentine's Day, fire swept through their warehouse, destroying their entire inventory of Valentine's Day cards and leaving the brothers $17,000 in debt. "If you want to quit, that's a good time to quit," Hall says of the calamity. "But if you're not a quitter, you begin to think fast." And that's exactly what he did.

Rising to the challenge, Hall borrowed enough money to purchase a local engraving firm so he and Rollie could replenish their stock quickly and cheaply by printing their own cards. They produced their first two cards in time for Christmas 1915. The hand-painted yuletide greetings quickly became a success with holiday shoppers, providing the brothers with a badly needed influx of cash.

Now that he had his own printing press and some capital to work with, Hall began experimenting with other card concepts. At the time, most of the greeting cards sold in the United States were elaborately engraved imports from England and Germany, made only for Christmas and Valentine's Day. But Hall believed Americans, who were much more casual than Europeans, would take to the idea of inexpensive "everyday" greeting cards they could send to friends and family not just on holidays, but throughout the entire year. His vision of colorfully illustrated cards expressing sentiments, friendship and even sympathy would create an entirely new market for greeting cards in America.

Convinced that the sending of casual "me to you" messages would eventually catch on as a social custom, Hall introduced his first everyday card in 1919. It featured a line from American poet Edgar Guest: "I'd like to be the kind of friend you've been to me." This simple yet heartfelt verse captured a feeling that many people wanted to share, and it became an immediate bestseller.

Encouraged by the success of this initial venture, the Hall brothers expanded their card themes to include birthday wishes, anniversary tidings, inspirational greetings and get-well messages. World War I added to the brothers' success, as folks back home rushed to send "missing you" cards to loved ones stationed overseas.

By the early 1920s, the all-occasion cards were being sold in stores throughout the East and Midwest, and the Halls moved to a new Kansas City location that employed 120 workers. By now, sending "me to you" cards had indeed become a social custom, something which did not go unnoticed by the Halls' main competitor, American Greetings, which had also begun selling all-occasion cards. In response to the increased competition and to further expand and gain national recognition, Hall re-christened the company Hallmark-a name that suggested the highest quality.

In the decades that followed, Hall continued to strive to make the Hallmark name synonymous with excellence. In 1944, Hallmark executive C.E. Goodman coined the now legendary Hallmark advertising slogan, "When you care enough to send the very best." To ensure his cards lived up to this promise, Hall called upon the talents of popular artists and writers of the day, such as Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses, Ogden Nash and Pearl Buck. He even sold cards designed by Winston Churchill and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Always looking for new ways to sell his cards, Hall began studying American shopping habits and discovered a large potential market selling cards through chain drug, food and discount retailers. In 1959, he introduced Ambassador Cards, a special line created to be sold solely through these rapidly growing retail channels.

A die-hard autocrat and staunch perfectionist, Hall insisted on giving his stamp of approval to every single greeting card design and verse before it was added to the product line. Even after his retirement in 1966, when his son, Donald, took over the helm, Hall continued to put in full days at the office when he wasn't vacationing. At the time of Hall's death in 1982, the company he founded more than 70 years earlier was turning out 8 million greeting cards each day, including the card that started it all-the Edgar Guest friendship verse, which remains one of Hallmark's strongest sellers to this day.

Card Shark
In 1998, Americans spent more than $7.5 billion on greeting cards; Hallmark Cards Inc. leads the industry with more than 41 percent of the market share.

It's A Wrap
In addition to creating the modern greeting-card industry, Hallmark Cards Inc. is also credited with introducing decorated gift wrap as a replacement for the plain brown wrapping paper and standard white, red and green tissue that had been used for years. The innovation was somewhat of a fluke, however. During one Christmas season, the Hall brothers ran out of colored tissue and quick-thinking Rollie substituted the fancy French paper that was used to line envelopes. The shoppers loved it, so Hallmark began producing a complete line of colored wrapping paper for every occasion.

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