Valentines are thought to be the first greeting cards ever sent; the paper valentine dates from the 16th century. By the 17th century, handmade cards were oversized and elaborate, while store-bought ones were smaller and costly. But printers were already beginning to produce a limited number of cards with verses and sketches. The real revolution came in the early 19th century with a reduction in postal rates. This helped to establish the custom of sending anonymous messages or cards to those one admired.
Valentine greetings have been popular since the Middle Ages, a time when prospective lovers said or sang their romantic verses. Written valentines began to appear after 1400. Paper valentines originated in the 1500s, being exchanged in Europe and being given in place of valentine gifts and oral or musical valentine greetings. They were particularly popular in England. The first written valentine (formerly known as "poetical or amorous addresses") is traditionally attributed to the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. While confined in the Tower of
London after the Battle of Agincourt, the young Duke reportedly passed his time by writing romantic verses for his wife in France. Approximately sixty of the Duke's poems remain and can be seen among the royal papers in the British Museum. They are credited with being the first modern day valentines.
By the Sixteenth Century, written valentines were commonplace and by the Seventeenth Century, it was a widespread tradition in England and other Western countries for friends and sweethearts to exchange gifts and notes on February 14. During the early 1700s, Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian poetical art known as the "language of flowers" to Europe and throughout the Eighteenth Century, floral dictionaries were published, permitting the exchange of romantic secrets via a lily or lilac, for example, culminating in entire conversations taking place within a bouquet of flowers. The more popular the flower, the more traditions and meaning were associated with it. The red rose, for instance, believed to be the favored flower of Venus, Roman Goddess of Love, became universally accepted to represent romantic love. Thus, the custom of giving red roses on Valentine's Day quickly gained popularity.
Some time after 1723, the popularity of valentine cards in America began to grow with the import from England of valentine "writers." A "writer" was a booklet comprised of a vast array of verses and messages, which could be copied onto gilt-edged paper or other type of decorative sheet. One popular "writer" contained not only "be my valentine" types of verses for the men to send to their sweethearts, but also acceptances or "answers" which the ladies could then return.
Late Eighteenth Century and Early Nineteenth Century valentines were often religious in nature and it is possible that the "Sacred Heart" often depicted on these cards eventually became the "Valentine Heart" with the customarily accompanying Angel eventually becoming "Cupid." It is believed that the earlier versions of these religious valentines may have been made by nuns who would cut-out the paper lace with scissors. It is thought the process probably took many days since the cards had every appearance of being machine-made.
One popular style of early American card from 1840 to approximately 1860 was the "Daguerreotype," a photographic process using old-time tintype in the center of a card surrounded by an ornamental wreath. Another was the "Mirror Valentine," which contained a small mirror placed in the center to reflect the face of the recipient.
However, the sending of valentine greetings in America did not become a true tradition until around the time of the Civil War (1861-1865) when valentine cards often depicted sweethearts parting, or a tent with flaps that opened to reveal a soldier. These were known as "windows." In peacetime, the "window" would be a church door opening to reveal a bridge and groom.
Another Civil War valentine novelty was for the card to have a place for the sender to include a lock of hair. By the early 1800s, valentines began to be assembled in factories. Such early manufactured valentines were rather simplistic, composed of black-and-white pictures painted by the factory workers. Fancy valentines comprised of real lace and ribbons were introduced in the mid-1800s. Paper lace began to be introduced to the cards later in the 1800s; these valentines also contained delicate and artistic messages with pictures of turtledoves, love knots in gold or silver, bows and arrow, Cupids and bleeding hearts.
During the Victorian Era and its printing advances, Valentine cards became even more popular and the modern postal service of the age implemented the "penny post," which made it easier to mail written valentines. (Prior to that time, postage was so expensive that most cards were hand-delivered and usually left on doorsteps.) Known as "penny postcards" (because they were mailed with a one-penny postage stamp), these valentine greetings were very popular from around 1890 to 1917.
During this time, it was also considered "proper" to collect and display collections of postcards and trade cards in the Victorian and Edwardian parlor. Friends and guests would be invited to sit for hours, leafing through albums while they visited. This custom gained so much popularity that photographers, studios, printers and business continually strived for new and exciting subjects to satisfy a public which was anxious for innovative items in order to impress their acquaintances. To make their cards stand out, people often sought for real photographic postcards. As opposed to mass-produced lithographs, these were actual photographs made with a postcard-printed back. The photography studios frequently employed women to hand-tint and color the black-and-white images. Some of the best of these cards came from Germany...famous for its detailed and colorful lithography. Popular subjects included women, children, flowers and couples, posed and arranged in an effort to portray the idealized virtues of the Era. Indeed, it was in England that the first
commercial-type valentine was produced on embossed paper, later perforated to make a lace-type design. Some of these cards contained tiny mirrors with the message: "Look at my Beloved," while others were called "Cobweb Valentines" because the center could be lifted by a tassel to reveal a cobweb effect of paper and underneath, a picture of a couple or a romantic message.
Although pre-Victorian valentines virtually unavailable today, but cards have survived over a century due chiefly to the fact, that they began to be mass-produced around 1850. However, the majority of early Victorian valentines were customarily made by hand from honeycombed tissue, watercolors, paper puffs, colored inks, embossed paper hearts and exquisite lace. These were truly beautifully created small works of art, often adorned with silk or satin (in addition) to lace, flowers or feathers and even gold leaf. Such fragile honeycomb designs remained the vogue until around 1909. Some of the most unusual valentines were fashioned by lonely sailors during this time...unique cards sporting seashells of various sizes employed to create hearts, flowers and other designs, or to cover heart-shaped boxes. Sailors also sent what were known as "Busk Valentines", rounded long sticks fashioned from ivory or wood, somewhat resembling a tongue depressor but approximately five time longer. Upon these sticks, the sailor would carve hearts and other loving designs. The sailor's sweetheart inside her corset wore the "Busk Valentine". It was not unusual for a manufactured valentine of this era to cost as much as a month's earnings, particularly the "proposal valentines" who were very popular and might contain the depiction of a church or a ring. In keeping with Victorian etiquette, it was considered improper for a lady to send a valentine greeting to a man.
During the mid-Nineteenth Century, the traditional valentine was designed for a brief period of time to assume the form of money. Known as "love notes," these cards were eventually banned due to their uncanny likeness to authentic currency. It was around this time that valentines also gradually became rather less artistic and more overly ornamental. During the "Gay Nineties," for example, the cards were adorned with garish spun glass, mother-of-pearl, imitation gems or silk fringe. Evidence of the less attractive and what might be considered "cheap-looking" valentine is seen in the "vinegar valentine." A greeting which ranged in sentiment from the caustic to the comical, the "vinegar valentine" was created by John McLaughlin, a New York printer. It was produced on cheap paper, decorated with crude colors and might contain as message such as:
"Miss Grey hairs and wrinkles don't look quite so cold.
Don't let it surprise you to find yourself old.
The old family record with truth on its page,
Tells a horrible fact about your present age.
Your Pa or your Ma may have said you look young,
Some 20 years since but now you're among
The 'old maids' of this world, without chance for a beau,
For Cupid's grown gray since he cut you, you know."
As can be seen, the "vinegar valentine" poked fun at old maids and teachers (among others). Comic designs of the 1870s by the American cartoonist Charles Howard were known as "penny dreadfuls," a somewhat appropriate title since they sold for a penny and the designs really were quite "dreadful" in nature. Both "vinegar valentines" and "penny dreadfuls" came under close social, religious and postal service scrutiny. The practice also led to a somewhat obscene number of valentines being produced which caused several countries to ban the practice of exchanging cards through the mail for a period of time. For example, in Chicago, late in the Nineteenth Century, the Post Office rejected some 25,000 cards on the grounds that they were "not fit" be carried through the United States Mail.
Commercial valentines were first made during the 1800s with Kate Greenway (1846-1901), a British artist, being one of the leading makers of such greetings. Greenway valentines are well-known for drawings of little children and the varied shades of blues and greens that she favored.
In 1840, Esther A. Howland, a student at Mount Holyoke College, mass-produced the first American commercial Valentines. Howland's father, a stationer in Worcester, Massachusetts, imported valentine cards annually from England. However, Howland decided to create her own valentine messages. Around 1830, she began to import lace, fine papers and other supplies for the creation of her cards. Employing several assistants and her brothers (thus becoming one of the first individuals to ever use an assembly line), Howland marketed her "Worcester" valentines with a distinguishable little red "H" on the back. The first year in business brought Howland an unexpected $5,000.00 in sales (a princely sum at that time) and her cards (some of which sold for $50.00 each) eliminated the laborious task of making homemade valentines. Larger companies followed her lead almost immediately.
During the 1840s, the first "mechanical" valentines were introduced. By pulling a tab, a figure or object on the card could be made to move. Some even had elaborate and dramatic pop-outs or various other three-dimensional features. The end of the 1800s was making valentines made entirely by machine. During the early 1900s, a card company called Norcross began to produce valentines and the Hallmark Company owns a collection of rare antique varieties, which it will occasionally put on display. The advent of the Twentieth Century truly brought a change in the valentine card industry from the heavy sentimentality of earlier days to what can probably be best described as a "light touch."
In themselves, valentines are closely related to Austrian and German love tokens, which were produced until around 1820. Exquisitely made, these little items were fashioned and colored totally by hand. Not necessarily given on Valentine's Day, they were nevertheless adorned with hearts and images of sweethearts. Many had a transparent net background embossed with gold trimmings. Today, a valentine card is usually accompanied by the more elaborate gifts of candy, flowers and perfume. Nevertheless, Valentine's Day Cards remain extremely popular and are manufactured on an enormous scale...cards may be purchased for sweethearts, spouses, children, parents, teachers and even pets. The United States Post Office in Loveland, Colorado, USA, creates a special and one-of-a-kind cancellation stamp every year in order to celebrate Valentine's Day and the romantic name of Loveland, Colorado. The Post Office is now averaging greater than 300,000 Valentines emailed annually including 104 foreign countries and all 50 United States. The cancellation stamp sample shown here is from 1995.
Today, about 1 billion Valentine's Day cards are sent each year. The holiday ranks second (after Christmas) for the number of cards sent. According to the latest US Census data (which is from 2000), Americans spend about $277 million on cards each