$10,000 If You Die Laughing (Dec, 1951)

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$10,000 If You Die Laughing

Insurance against laughicide is all in the day’s business for these Mad Hatters of the comic greeting-card industry.

By Edward Dembitz

“WHY don’t you write?” the card asks tenderly. “Is your hand broken?” You lift the cover and, wham, a miniature metal bear-trap clamps down on your finger!

“Well, now it is!” jeers the caption. “Now you’ve got a real excuse for not writing.”

If this card kills you, don’t worry about it. The Barker Greeting Card Company of Cincinnati even has that one figured out— they’ve taken out an insurance policy which pays $10,000 to the heirs of anyone who laughs himself to death over one of their products.

Wacky? Take a look at some of the other cards. Many contain inserts—hairy monsters rubber-propelled bats that zoom into the air like a “bat out of Hell,” hunks of baloney complete with knife, chamber pots —everything but the kitchen sink, an oversight that is being corrected with the new line. Father’s Day cards bear such gifts as tobacco, razor blades, IOUs, and the provocative text, “You made me what I am today; satisfied, Dad?” There are noise-makers and Bronx cheers, cards to be read under water and cards that unfold into full-size clothing—”the shirt right off my back.”

A five year quest led to the Christmas special: a one-dollar music box which plays a complete chorus of Jingle Bells. Its success turned the factory into a miniature Tin Pan Alley. Valentine cards tinkle Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Birthday cards play Happy Birthday To You. For Mother’s Day the theme is Home Sweet Home. Just now they’re working on an intriguing design: a card that showers perfume upon the recipient.

How does such insanity get its start? Well, seven years ago Lt. Bill Shane lay in an Okinawa hospital bed, speculating upon his role in the postwar world. To help pass the hours, he dashed off another card to his boyhood chum Al Barker, proprietor of a small stationery store in Cincinnati. A card, not a letter, for correspondence between the pair had deteriorated into an exchange of humorous verse.

Back in Ohio, meanwhile, Barker was shaking his head regretfully at a greeting- card salesman’s latest line of samples. Commented Barker, “I could do better than that with one brain shut. So could my friend Bill.”


When the war ended, Shane and Barker pooled their resources, borrowed a few thousand dollars, and—without any previous experience in the field—began to publish humorous, surprise impact and novelty greetings. Today their firm is the largest in the world devoted exclusively to such cards and it’s still expanding. For competitive reasons the partners don’t like to discuss figures and finances: their 1951 sales were a vague “20 to 50 million cards.” When referred to as self-made millionaires, they demur, saying “Not yet, maybe by next year.”

It’s obvious that the partners’ thoughts don’t run along conventional channels, although there’s nothing unique about their backgrounds. Shane, a 40-year-old bachelor, ruddy-faced, well-fed and weight-conscious, is a fast-talking bundle of energy who had been an editor of his college humor magazine, and later a public relations and advertising genius (by his own admission).

Barker, also 40, is slow of speech, publicity-shy, mechanical-minded, the dreamer type. He brought to the venture a lifetime of study in customer psychology gathered while operating stationery stores and job-printing plants from coast to coast.

From the start, President Barker has handled policy and ideas. Practical jokes, gadgets, and research fascinate him. On his rare business trips to strange cities, the first thing he does is explore little variety stores on side streets. He returns to Cincinnati loaded with doodads and plans for incorporating them into cards. Visitors to his office are taken aback at the sight of this immaculately-garbed executive on his hands and knees, tinkering with toys spread out on the floor.

Vice President Shane, on the other hand, is seldom in one spot for long. Sales, dealer franchises, trouble-shooting and advertising fall within his bailiwick. His publicity campaigns startled the industry, long noted for its conservatism. He had a three-dimensional talking card “interviewed” on television. He instituted the Barker Award —each Christmas a group of soldiers are given free trips home, “Living Greetings,” in Shane’s words. In the New York Daily News, drama critic John Chapman reviewed the debut of a new card. The company’s agreements with comedians result in press releases like “Milton Berle says he’s going to send the Barker I’m Still Mad At You card to the horse that ran last in the fifth at Belmont yesterday.”

Publicity is one of the final labors in the year-long gestation of a new card. Getting ideas is the initial step. Shane and Barker still find time to originate a few of the thousand new designs they issue yearly. The latter include the standard everyday and holidays, plus such whimsey as “Congratulations on Your Divorce”; “Glad to Hear Your Tonsils Slid Out Easily”; “Best Wishes to One Who Finally Graduated”; and “Happy Birthday to My Dear Mother-in-Law”—a number which somehow failed to catch the public’s fancy. A Valentine’s Day card, “To the Only Girl I’ve Ever Loved,” is a perennial best-seller, with unmarried Lotharios buying it in dozen lots.

Ideas come from many sources now. Barker’s wife, in a hospital awaiting the arrival of a second child, first gave birth to several baby congratulations verses. Barker, riding on a bus, overheard two girls discussing a blind date. “He had such a young bright voice on the telephone,” complained one, “and he turned out to be an old man, over 30.” Result: a birthday card, ”You must have been some kid, you old goat”

About three-fourths of the firm’s cards are built around material submitted in bushel lots by free-lance writers, professional gagsters, housewives and high-school students. Barker pays them from $10 to $25 for each accepted idea; the bill runs to $150,000 a year.

Most of the 250 employes contribute ideas, verse and criticism. The atmosphere throughout the company’s five-story building lends itself to such activity. Informality is the keynote. Says Shane, “Everyone who works here seems to be enjoying himself. We try to make things congenial. Sodas, music, picnics, sports—all they have to do is ask. And any idea gets an instant hearing.”

Even interoffice memos feel the effects of this attitude:

Special meeting at two To see what we should do About the attached: Sales too few.

The accounting staff keeps in trim with reminders to delinquent retailers:

We sent you merchandise, by heck— Co-operate, please send a check.

If sterner measures are indicated: Please remit, past due, Or else, to wit: We’ll sue!

Unsuspected pitfalls have plunged many a novice card publisher into early bankruptcy. Few realize, for example, that elephants on cards sell, whereas alligators don’t. Tabus have to be considered—only a rank amateur would use orange colors on a St. Patrick’s Day card, or would spell Christmas as Xmas. Humans portrayed should *be of anonymous nationality, although the Scots don’t mind being upheld as models of frugality.

For guidance, the partners can call upon their research department, which has spent a half-million dollars in tabulating the likes and dislikes of buyers. They know, for instance, what colors and types of paper children in various age groups prefer, and how much trouble they have with mechanical enclosures. Hence Barker’s juvenile cards embody Formosa water flowers, ring-toss games, animated nursery rhymes, all-day suckers, rabbits’ ears made of rubber balloons and a booklet card with paints and brush.

They have also retained psychiatrists and psychological research outfits to delve into the hidden motives which lead people to buy various kinds of greetings. These, like all motives, are complex. “The reason some women send humorous cards to their husbands,” reads Al Barker from a report (while fingering design No. 2026: From One Shmo to Another), “is to avoid an open profession of love.” He picks up the analysis of a card which pictures a housewife tossing a rolling pin at hubby. “This card will furnish an outlet for the aggression which the size and temperament of the spouse normally discourages.”

And Bill Shane chimes in, “Here’s a husband-to-wife verse we never bothered to have analyzed [Continued on page 183] because it’s selling: ‘I loveum pwecious snookie-pie; Does oo love bitsie me?’ ”

But it’s the statistics that show which cards have the public panting for more of the same. Taking a leaf from Hollywood’s experiences, publishers follow each successful creation with a sequel. At the same time, they have few compunctions about putting out a sequel to a rival’s best-seller, if they can spot it. Hence the aura of secrecy which pervades the halls of the industry’s giants.

This secrecy makes most figures for the industry highly unreliable. But everyone agrees that cheerful sentiments comprise half of today’s production, compared with 20 per cent before the war. And that three-fourths of all purchasers are women and children. Some sources claim that women over 45 pass up all but the simplest humor, but Barker contradicts this. “If a woman has a sense of humor,” he declares, “she doesn’t lose it as she ages. And besides,” he adds reasonably, “where can you find a woman over 45?”

Barker believes, however, that men are more receptive to outrageous puns, intricate gags and low humor. The firm doesn’t print risque numbers, although some of its cards aren’t exactly appropriate for that mythical maiden aunt from Dubuque.

“Men shunned greetings in the past,” asserts Barker, “because cards were lacey and gushy. Even those with masculine motifs—sports, hunting scenes, covered bridges—acquired the feminine taint through association. Our down-to-earth products have changed that.”

For males only, the company once released a set of seven courtship cards, a relic of the days when Al Barker wooed and won his wife with 60 poetical pleas. There was no double-your-money-back offer, but the series was guaranteed to sweep a girl off her feet in the preacher’s direction. Like dunning letters from collection agencies, they started off mildly and worked up to a proposal. One thing the partners noticed, though—sales of the last card in the set were abnormally light!

Right now, they’re concerned with a different production problem—how to get their completely edible birthday cards back on the market. Made of almond paste, they made ideal gifts to starving artists but brought few reorders from retailers whose stores were patronized by hungry rats (the four-legged kind).

“We’re considering several remedies,” say the partners. “But serious ones—not the kind sent in by a customer. He wanted us to combine the edible card with our steel trap card and caption it ‘I hope you choke on this.’ ” •

  1. Michael says: February 12, 20118:55 am

    Greetings, I just recently purchased a cache of unused Barker Valentines which I thought were very inventive and unique. Never heard of the company before and your site was very informative. Thanks for the work you’ve done in creating this resourse for those interested in holiday ephemera. Regards.

  2. Warren Kahn says: May 17, 201110:02 am

    I recently received an unused, super-size, pop-up, comical Barker Greeting card from the 1940’s, googled the company as I never heard of it and came across this interesting article. If anyone has some more information or might possibly be interested in this card, please leave a comment.

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