One greeting shows a high-heeled, blond woman wearing an apron over her long dress watching her baby as she sweeps the kitchen floor with a smile.
Another card depicts a woman with her hair pulled into a tight bun, the sleeves of her frilly dress rolled up as she scrubs behind the ears of a child in a wash tub.
Happy Mother’s Day! — 1930s style.
American Greetings Corp., Hallmark Corp. and other card makers are saying goodbye to the nostalgic — and very domesticated — messages of greeting cards past as they expand their products to reflect the various, modern images of motherhood. In recent years, cards for expecting mothers, girlfriends, lesbian partners and even ex-mothers-in-law have been added to the racks alongside traditional ones from children to their mothers.
The motivation is not just cultural for the multimillion-dollar companies competing to stay relevant in the age of online greetings: women buy more paper cards than any other demographic.
“When aprons and cook stoves were how women saw themselves as defined, they were on cards. Today, many mothers see themselves as hip, sophisticated career women, good friends bonded by motherhood or super soccer mom — those women are reflected on cards,” said Rachel Bolton, a spokeswoman for Kansas City-based Hallmark, the nation’s largest card company.
American Greetings, based in the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn, also has seen its Mother’s Day line evolve over its 100 years. The company’s first cards for the holiday date back to the 1920s and for several decades after that had cartoonlike portrayals of women wearing dresses, aprons and heels while cleaning, cooking or serving their families in other ways.
Many of the early greetings had male-oriented messages such as one that says, “If there were no dads around, we wouldn’t have Mother’s Day.”
“Even when it was about her it was still about him,” said Tina Benavides, vice president of American Greetings’ creative division. “We’d get letters about this now.”
Angela Thompson, Mother’s Day program manager at American Greetings, said the company studies how consumers talk, dress and decorate their homes to make sure greetings are current. Hallmark does similar market research, Bolton said.
Thompson said one of the new trends for the May holiday is cards for expectant mothers that show stylishly dressed “baby bumps” inspired by pregnancy being fashionable right now in Hollywood. A pregnant belly pictured on a card is an example of the images being used now that would have been taboo just a few years ago.
“We’ve seen a huge boom over the last couple of years where celebrity motherhood is big,” she said.
Ellen Garbarino, a marketing professor at Case Western Reserve University who studies body images in advertising, said the card industry is always ahead of the curve in adapting products to reflect the times, mostly because it can cheaply produce new lines and also “because their job is to express the emotional mood of a wide array of people.”
Cards from the archives are like paper time capsules: Hallmark’s greetings from the 1920s were printed in black and white and artists often hand-painted flowers to add color. Messages were almost always serious in tone, said Jeff Smith, a historian and archivist for the company.
Humor was introduced by both companies in the 1930s — many of American Greetings’ cards contain jokes about spanking children.
The 1960s brought more pop art-oriented images such as little girls with giant eyes and big hair.
Cards today reflect the diversity of modern women.
Scrapbook-inspired cards with hand-attached embellishments like ribbon and buttons often carry family-centered messages for the stay-at-home mom.
One card from American Greetings line this year shows a black woman in professional clothes racing past a cityscape holding coffee and carrying a designer handbag. It’s one of several that focuses on the independent, working mother.
There are cards with neutral messages that could be given to a mother figure, a girlfriend or gay or lesbian partners.
Cards from the 1940s had special folds for tucking away cash so moms could treat themselves. Today’s greetings have slotted squares for plastic gift cards.
Both companies say that while images have evolved greatly, the point has relatively remained unchanged.
“There’s always a line that communicates appreciation, a line that acknowledges all the hard work,” Smith said. “It’s not just the nurturing that mom provides, which is important. It’s also a real concerted effort to legitimize all the little things that often go unnoticed but without them everything would just come crashing down around our ears.”