THIS JUST IN: Dissecting Gender Roles through Greeting Cards

By Yvette Yurubi, Special Collections Archives Assistant

According to the Greeting Card Association, greeting cards have their recorded origins dating as far back as the Ancient Egyptians, who would often include messages of goodwill on papyrus scrolls. Greeting cards had a prolific growth in use with the advent of the printing press and the rise of systemic, government-operated mail delivery that made it easier to transmit letters over greater distances. They experienced a cultural rebirth in the late 1800s and 1900s when Valentine’s Day celebrations in Great Britain popularized the exchange of small tokens of affection, the most notable being Valentine’s Day cards. Since then greeting cards have become ubiquitous in expressing all kinds of sentiments, from “get well” wishes to birthday and anniversary regards.

Because of their growth in popularity, greeting cards contain a wealth of information about the evolution of social history, and they present a more intimate depiction of how historical events were being interpreted by businesses trying to cash in on widespread, popular attitudes of the time. Most notably, they help illustrate the casual use of sexist images and terminology, much of it embodied in the images of children, who were often the recipients of these cards, without any thought or care for the subtle way they were emphasizing societal views on gender roles. Our newly acquired Vintage Greeting Card Collection represents a sample portion of how much traditional gender roles had permeated our social conscience with the cards aimed at girls, often including women either in sexually implicit context or in domestic roles, such as doing housework or nurturing children. There is also a heavy dosage of flowers, lace, hearts, pink backgrounds, and other imagery traditionally associated with femininity spread throughout them. In contrast, the cards which feature boys or men in them usually have them playing with cars or trucks or taking on the role of doctors, cowboys, and astronauts, and the cards are generally more restrained in color and decoration.

Interestingly enough, not all cards adhere firmly to gender roles, as there are numerous cards that blatantly depict women in non-traditional career roles, performing activities such as mining, piloting airplanes, sailing, and even being portrayed as soldiers. One of the more unique acquisitions is a World War II-era card in which female soldiers are disciplining each of the leaders of the Axis powers in a manner befitting of a mother scolding a small child. Likewise, among the cards featuring men, there are a few of them showing men in a nurturing role as fathers and caretakers. One card even shows a female kitten and a male dog riding on a bike together with the female kitten steering while the male dog holds a bouquet of flowers.

The writings inside the cards contain an extra layer of story-telling that often contributes to the unique rarity of these cards. For instance, one card with racy women on the cover has writing in pencil stating, “Gee kid don’t you wish you had a shape like this, SLIM,” to an unknown recipient named Vera. It’s easy to weave a tale around such messages as these, imagining who both the sender and receivers were, and what kind of relationship they may have had with one another. Not knowing the truth provides an intriguing mystique to these cards that bids our imaginations to run wild.

You can see more cards like these now at the Special Collections Department, currently located in the eighth floor of the Otto G. Richter Library.