Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 9, 2001Volume 29, Number 18

Sandra Boynton, a member of the second class of women admitted to Yale College, recalls being "sequestered" in Vanderbilt Hall with all the other female students during her freshman year. Nevertheless, she says, women "became quite quickly pretty much a natural part of the Yale landscape."

Confessions of an artistic (and choc-oholic) alumna

If you've ever bought a greeting card, you're probably familiar with Sandra Boynton's work.

With prancing cats, pigs and hippos on the covers and sporting offbeat messages like "Hippo Birdie Two Ewes" (Boynton-speak for "Happy Birthday to You"), over 20 million copies of Boynton's 8,000 cards sell each year. In addition to greeting cards, the Boynton empire has expanded over the years to include wallpaper, clothing, bed linens, mugs, books and musical albums.

A member of the Class of 1974, Yale College's second class of women; a former student in the graduate theater directing program at the Drama School; and mother of Calhoun College sophomore Caitlin McEwan, Boynton was invited back to campus Jan. 29 and 30 as the inaugural Eustace D. Theodore '63 Fellow.

A highlight of Boynton's visit was a program titled "The Curious Misuse of a Yale Education," which featured a performance of selections from her album "Grunt: Pigorian Chant from Snouto Domoinko de Silo." The Ad Hog Camerata sang under the direction of former Yale Glee Club director Fenno Heath '50.

Boynton also entertained a room full of fans at a Calhoun College master's tea. Sitting next to Boynton was Eustace Theodore, who was master of Calhoun College when Boynton was a student there.

At the tea, Boynton talked about her start as a greeting card designer, belatedly thanking Theodore for allowing her to advertise and sell her first Christmas card designs in Calhoun. She also discussed her experiences as one of the first female students at Yale, including the time a fellow freshman tacked up to her door an envelope misaddressed to "Male University."

Boynton spoke with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar recently about her work and her time at Yale. An edited version of that conversation follows.

How did you get started designing greeting cards?

I started doing cards when I was a junior at Yale in Calhoun. I later did that as a summer job because I really didn't like waitressing at all. I had an uncle who was a printer and I asked him if he would extend me the credit to print the cards. I would sell them and pay him back.

First I designed 12 gift enclosure cards. He printed them, I handcolored them, and I took them to various stores up and down the East Coast. And they did well enough. He had said, "Take as long as you want to pay me back." I was able to pay him back in three weeks, which amazed both of us. Then I was emboldened to design some Christmas cards, which he also printed. So I had a collection of 12 gift enclosure cards and maybe 10 Christmas cards.

What did those first cards look like?

They were awful. The gift enclosure cards were very small, probably an inch and a half by two inches, printed on watercolor paper. They were all just cartoon animals.

Your trademark cats and pigs?

Yes, but not very recognizable. Maybe a little recognizable, but not very. I think it's pretty much true with any cartoonist. If you look at Gary Trudeau's early stuff, it's so different. You can sort of see the germ of what someone's doing, but it really changes. I don't think I really learned how to draw until 10 years into my career as an artist.

That's how it started, as my summer job. I continued to sell the cards through my senior year here. I did the same thing the summer after my senior year, but I had more cards at that point. At the end of the summer I took them to a trade show in New York. I was on my way to graduate school; I first went to Berkeley for drama school. At the end of the summer, I sold the designs and negotiated a contract with a company called Recycled Paper Products. I continued to design cards while I was in graduate school, and they sold them for me, which was much easier.

The good thing about having sold them myself is I knew how well they sold. I was pretty naive and I asked for a royalty. They said, "It's never done." I said, "Well, it only makes sense to be paid a royalty for the cards." They said, "You may make less that way than a guaranteed amount." And I said, "I'd rather be tied to the success or failure of the cards." It was probably the best decision I ever made.

What's your fondest memory of Yale?

I loved it here. I was in the second class of women. In my freshman year all the women were in Vanderbilt Hall, and there was a guard at a desk. It was a very odd arrangement on Old Campus where we were sequestered in this fortress, all the admitted 250 women. They had kept this commitment to "a thousand male leaders a year." When they added women, they kept the "thousand male leaders a year" commitment for a while. We used to joke, "And 250 overqualified housewives."

But the thing that so impressed me about Yale is by the second year I didn't feel in the minority anymore. Which is not what happened elsewhere. If you talk to people who went to Princeton around that time, it's not their experience. Women became, I think, quite quickly pretty much a natural part of the Yale landscape. There wasn't this big issue of males versus females. You were all just Yale students. I think it's astonishing how quickly that happened here.

Do you have a favorite greeting card?

Not really. The ones that are my best tend to be the most peculiar and, in a sense, the least obviously commercial. The one that occurs to me is one that I did when I left the Yale Drama School. I only went to the Drama School here for a year and a half and I quit, which is tough to do. It's a very reputable drama school and it's a big stepping stone to a career. I just felt it wasn't inspiring me. I did a card when I left. On the front it has a sort of despondent-looking hippo, and it says, "Things are getting worse." Inside it says, "Please send chocolate." It's a very peculiar idea for a card. I thought: "This is a card just for me; if it's just so that I can send cards to people, fine." What was fun is the card did extraordinarily well. I had no idea. I guess there were a lot of people who were as chocolate-oriented as I was.

It was the success of that card that led me to do my first adult humor book, called "Chocolate: The Consuming Passion." It was based on the response to that card. I thought: "I've hit a nerve here." Plus the idea of all my chocolate being tax-deductible for a year was too good to pass up.

Do your animal characters have names?

I don't have names for my characters. It was never a decision beforehand to not name them or not give them a particular personality. To me, each greeting card is separate in itself. There was no sense of, "Gee, I need a cast of characters."

I realized somewhat retrospectively why I hadn't named them or given them particular attributes. It's because if you link them to age, gender, race, you're limiting their applicability in a greeting card situation. If you're sending a card to a friend, often the animal is representative of you or them. So if you name them, if it's Lucy, the crabby one in Peanuts, then you've particularized it: "the crabby white female." Whereas with the animals, it's enough of a palette that it can be anyone. There's more flexibility.

Curiously, I guess one has become known as "the Boynton cat." Or some people think the cat is named Boynton.

Do you identify with one of your animal characters more than the others?

The cat and the hippo, both. People are always surprised to find out that I'm not overweight. I find that curious. I think maybe people identify me with the hippo also, so they're surprised when I'm not hippo-ish.

When did you start writing children's books? Was it after you had children?

No, actually it precedes that. I wrote my first children's book when I was at the Drama School here. We always did a January term project. I don't know why they approved it, but they approved my writing and illustrating a children's book. That was "Hippos Go Berserk."

I always loved children's books. I had a friend when I was little whose mother was a children's book illustrator and I remember thinking, "Wow, that's the best job in the whole world." I still think that's the best job in the whole world.

When did you start writing children's songs?

When my own kids were little. There's certain music that people give children or that's available for children, and most of it I absolutely loathe. I find it either too sing-songy or condescending or cutesy or interminable. I thought: "They don't need this pablum as music."

Talk about fantasy -- that was a real fantasy for me, to write songs. I was really lucky. Through a series of odd connections, a producer in Philadelphia, Mike Ford, was given these lyrics that I had written on spec called "Rhinoceros Tap," and he sent the most extraordinary version back to me. He understood from reading how I had written the lyrics what it sounded like. It was almost uncanny. We've worked together ever since, and it's the most amazing collaboration.

There was one song I wanted to do -- a doo-wop, a capella song in Whiffenpoofs style. I mentioned this to him, and he said, "What are the Whiffenpoofs?" I sent him an album, and he got it right away. So we developed this song together called "Perfect Piggies."

How did you come to work with Fenno Heath on "Grunt"?

Mike Ford and I were actually at the Yale Club in New York working on five songs intensively. In the middle of "Perfect Piggies," we decided to go get something to eat. We were walking along the street. Then all of a sudden, I had this image of the "Chant" album; it was everywhere at the time. I said, "Mike, I've had a vision!" He said, "What?" I said, "It's 'Chant,' but it says 'Grunt'!" He started laughing. And I said, "They sing in pig latin!"

I actually called my publisher, Peter Workman, with whom we were doing "Rhinoceros Tap" right then. He's also a Yale guy; he graduated in the Class of 1960. I said, "Can I do two projects at the same time? Because I've had this idea." I described it to him, and I said, "But it's really timebound. We're a little after the curve if we're going to do a satirical response to 'Chant.'" He said, "If you can do them both in the same amount of time, go ahead."

So I called Fenno, who I had sung with in the Glee Club. He assembled all the singers, and I wrote the music. I think I'm one of the few people to have written Gregorian chant in the last 50 years.

We ended up having to record it twice, luckily. The reason I say it was lucky is because none of us had realized how difficult it was going to be to sing plainchant in pig latin. It's really difficult. So luckily we got to record it again. It was all very quick, but it was really the most fun I've ever had.

Where do you get your quirky sense of humor?

My parents both had very quirky senses of humor. It's interesting, when my cards were sold in England, people assumed that I was British. They were very surprised to find out I was American. They said, "Well, Americans don't have this sense of humor."

What can we expect from you in the future?

My son graduated from high school last year so I wrote a book for him, which should be coming out any minute now. It's called "Yay, You!" I'm working on another music project with Mike Ford tentatively titled "Philadelphia Chickens." It's a second children's album. I'm guessing I'll do an animated project within the next three years, but I don't know what.

Do you have any advice for Yale students today?

Be a little wary of your computers.

Do you really feel like you misused your Yale education?


Is there anything you love more than chocolate?

My family. But I do love chocolate.

-- By JinAh Lee


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