Have you ever taken a close look at the stationery samples and templates on Paperless Post? A Valentine from Rhett to Scarlett, a Mother’s Day card signed Marcel (Proust), an invitation to Hemingway’s birthday in Sun Valley . . . Browse through the cards, and you’ll find all sorts of imaginary correspondence from famous authors and literary characters. It’s no slapdash job, either—these are inventive, witty, sometimes sly references. There’s a thread of wish fulfillment, too. Who wouldn’t want to join Elizabeth and Darcy’s engagement party?
Alexa and James Hirschfeld, the sibling co-founders of the online correspondence company, see these literary allusions as an essential part of the Paperless identity. Let others trumpet the duo’s entrepreneurial victories and technology chops—I’m thrilled that such a successful start-up is built, in part, on bookish culture. James kindly fielded a few questions about their wordplay.
1. How did the literary references on the Paperless samples get started? Have they been included since the site’s beginning?
We knew from the beginning that the sample wording on our cards was vital in defining the aesthetics of Paperless Post’s brand. When we looked at the other stationery on the market, the generic, sanitized wording felt like a missed opportunity. We had set out to create an allusive and evocative product—digital invitations that harkened back to the world of paper, personalization, and craftsmanship—and it only made sense to have our wording embody this vision as well. We want our cards to paint a picture of the types of events we imagine when we create them, whether it be a dinner at Newland and May Archer’s house or bachelorette party for Lydia Bennet.
2. Did you and/or Alexa spark this idea, perhaps from a particular literary taste or study?
When we first started Paperless Post, I was still in school studying literary theory and Alexa had just graduated with a degree in classics. We’d already spent so much time contemplating the literary canon and that didn’t change after we started thinking about the tradition of stationery and invitations. Literature continued to provide a lens through which we could filter our views of the world, even as we embarked on developing a technology company.
3. Do you see these as part of the Paperless aesthetic, working in tandem with the graphic design and other elements? Or more of an in-joke?
The literary references are absolutely part of the Paperless aesthetic, which defines itself through allusions to aesthetics that have come before it.
The Paperless Post aesthetic is rooted in traditions that predate the product—the craftsmanship of fine paper stationery; the tradition of engraving and letterpressing—even as it seeks to expand and redefine them. Similarly, our literary allusions borrow from the canon while often reimagining its characters. Evoking Tom and Daisy Buchanan provides context for our designs, even if the allusion to their wedding isn’t directly from the novel.
4. How does the team come up with the fiction allusions? Are the literary references growing or changing in how they’re used?
Our literary references are usually informed by our cards’ themes (e.g., a particular holiday, special occasion, or season) and, at their best, exemplify or enrich our designs.
Sometimes the connection is straightforward: a Christmas invitation from Dickens’ Mr. Fezziwig or a summer bash hosted by Jay Gatsby. These are characters whose parties are character-defining within the context of the novel and whose names seem natural for the invitation.
Other times, the connection is richer, if also a bit more complicated. For instance, many of our invitations are formatted for a party at Clarissa and Richard Dalloway’s home. Though Virginia Woolf’s novel contains one of the great parties of modern literature, the book’s central event is filled with a complicated mix of emotions, regrets, and reconciliations—not necessarily what you’d hope for of your own cocktail party.
In other cases still, we purposely chose literary examples that challenge or ironize the designs they’re paired with. We have Father’s Day cards from Regan to King Lear, “get well soon” cards for Gregor Samsa, and baby shower invitations for Anna Karenina. In these cases, we hope the wording is read with a wink or a nudge (and not with horror).
5. Do your customers notice them, comment on them?
When we receive feedback on them, it’s overwhelmingly positive. Fans of these books are delighted to discover their favorite characters evoked in a creative way. Event planning is part fantasy—a grand vision of what you hope your party will bring—and I think people enjoy being transported to an imaginary realm they know and love.
Once or twice we’ve gotten negative feedback from users who misunderstand our intentions and are pedantic about the source material. For example, the author of this article from the American Reader cites factual inaccuracies with our invitations for Anna Karenina’s baby shower (“If Dolly lives in Moscow she will not throw a party in Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya, St. Petersberg”) and believes it in poor taste to reference a fictional mother who is tragically separated from her child. It’s an unfortunate reading of it, but we’re confident that most of our customers understand that these references are meant to be tongue-in-cheek and not as historical accounts of their source material.
6. Have you thought about meshing the epistolary and the literary in other ways—perhaps epistolary short stories?
Not yet, but that’s a great idea! For better or worse, as a startup we are always trying to narrow the scope of what we do (and do it well) in favor of expanding into unrelated product lines.
7. Any personal favorites (you and Alexa), or a tip on an upcoming literary in-joke?
Alexa’s favorite book is The House of Mirth, and she wrote this note from Lily Bart to Lawrence Selden:
August 15th, 1895
Silly me for missing my train to the Trenors’ house last week, but how lovely to find you on the railway platform. I enjoyed our walk, and wished to thank you for the tea and smoke. I should be at Bellomont and Tuxedo these last few weekends of summer, but I hope to see you this fall.
I love Homer and wrote this invitation for Odysseus’ farewell party:
Join us for
cocktails and hors d’oeuvres
as we bid farewell to
and wish him luck in Troy
Friday the 10th of June
at 8 PM
52 Homer Street