The Heart of the Matter: A History of Valentine Cards

The Strong National Museum of Play

From the Collections of The Strong National Museum of Play | Rochester, New York

A History of Valentine Cards
Valentine’s Day traces its roots back to the ancient Roman fertility festival, Lupercalia, and to legends about St. Valentine, a 3rd century A.D. priest executed for continuing to wed couples despite a prohibition on marriage. In the centuries since then, lovers, friends, and sometimes even foes have exchanged valentine cards. This exhibit explores how these greetings playfully mixed flirtation and romance with humor that has ranged from whimsical to biting.

Love Birds

During the medieval period, a popular folk belief held that birds selected their mates in February, as documented by poet Geoffrey Chaucer in his valentine poem, “The Parliament of Fowles.” On Valentine’s Day in England, young men selected their Valentines by drawing lots, and the young woman chosen would remain a man’s Valentine through the ensuing year.

Valentine’s Day Bounces Back

In their quest to purify the Christian church, the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell abolished all holidays, including Valentine’s Day. Following the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, however, Valentine’s Day made a resurgence. The holiday took on a commercial dimension as gentlemen were expected to give valentine gifts, such as gloves and garters—not the flowers and chocolates we expect today—to their sweethearts.

Postal Progress

In 1840, the British Parliament instituted mail delivery throughout England at a flat rate of a penny, and the expense of mailing a letter could be prepaid using a new device—the postage stamp. The low cost and efficient delivery of mail, along with the adoption of envelopes that allowed privacy, helped encourage the sending of valentines in England and likewise in the United States, which implemented similar postal policies.

Crafting Cards
Heartfelt sentiment has sometimes inspired the creation of handmade valentine cards or original written romantic messages, whether in prose or poetry. Recipients have often treated those valentines as treasured keepsakes and a select few have survived to enter museum collections.

Artistic Affection

In 1667, famous English diarist Samuel Pepys described a handmade valentine card to his wife from “Little Will Mercer” who “brought her name writ upon blue paper in gold letters, done by himself, very pretty—and we were both well pleased with it.” Unromantically, Pepys then lamented, “But I am also my wife’s Valentine and it will cost me 5₤.”

Heartfelt and Handmade

Handmade valentines could be incredibly elaborate, as seen in this greeting made about 1835. Its ornate calligraphy and colorful embellishment typifies the folk art style known as fraktur (for the “fractured” or angular gothic font) favored by Pennsylvania Germans at the time. However, most people did not have either the initiative or the skill to create valentine cards, thereby creating a market opportunity that printers increasingly addressed.

However, most people did not have either the initiative or the skill to create valentine cards, thereby creating a market opportunity that printers increasingly addressed.

Enhancing Romance

In the early 19th century, writing paper moved away from being exclusively plain as stationers offered styles with ornamental edges and decorative printed designs. A suitably romantic message could then be inscribed, expressing the writer’s ardent affection.

Valentine Writers’ Block

When Valentine’s Day came around, many people found themselves with serious writer’s block, incapable of expressing the emotions in their hearts. The solution? A genre of books known as Valentine Writers offered rhymes to suit a wide variety of circumstances. Pursuing your plumber? Attracted to a shop-girl? These books supplied everything tongue-tied romantics needed to express their desires.

Filling in the Blanks

Many valentines came with blank interiors, another reason that suitors turned to Valentine Writer books for prefab poetry. Card senders could also turn to printed messages that they could paste into their chosen card.

Manufacturing Feeling
For many years, sharing a Valentine’s Day greeting required making it yourself. Only as advances in printing and distribution accelerated in the 19th century did manufactured cards become commonly available. Since then, manufacturers have produced valentines to suit a broad range of consumers—kids, adults, dating couples, married spouses, friends, family, and other prospective market segments.

Under Pressure

Starting in the late 18th century, techniques for embossing paper developed to produce complex textural decoration by placing paper on a die and subjecting it to pressure. This valentine with a chapel in the background of a courting couple shows off such pierced and embossed paper to great effect.

New and Novel

Some valentine cards contained special elements that added novelty to their messages. The interior of this card instructs the recipient to “Look at one I love” and features a tiny mirror to do just that.

Other novelty cards came in so-called “beehive” or “cobweb” designs in which carefully-cut paper could be lifted with a thread to reveal a picture hidden beneath.

A Woman’s Touch

Esther Howland founded a significant American valentine firm in 1848 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and made a mark as a female entrepreneur. Seeking to outdo the imported European valentines that dominated the market, she used lithographed pictures and embossed paper lace to assemble impressive cards that sold widely, despite their high prices—the equivalent of more than $100 today.

A Printer’s Proficiency

Louis Prang, an 1850 immigrant from Germany, settled in the Boston area where he worked as an engraver for magazines. Prang returned to Europe in 1864 to study the latest printing techniques and came home with advanced skills in chromolithography—a printing process using up to 20 stone plates to produce images with delicate coloration. Although best known for his Christmas cards, Prang also made beautiful valentines.

Layered on Thick

In the years just before and after 1900, valentine cards grew ever more elaborate and layered, sometimes with fabric fringes, ribbons, silk cords, or tassels. Some cards reached such dimensions that they required boxes to mail, not just envelopes.

Adding New Dimensions

About 1900, German manufacturers began to dominate the market with “mechanical” valentines that folded out to create three-dimensional scenes. Increasingly, these cards with their clever designs were aimed at children, rather than romantic grownups.

Honeycomb for Your Honey

Honeycomb paper added further dimensions to the fold-out valentines of the early 20th century. At the same time, courtship began to move away from old structures as the tradition of chaperons dwindled, and courting couples ventured out on their own to newly respectable venues, such as amusement parks, movie theaters, restaurants, and dance halls.

The Postcard Craze

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago incited a nationwide fad for postcards, and the fad in turn inspired valentine postcards like this example.

Staying in Character

Starting in the early 20th century, valentines for kids began to feature licensed characters from popular media, such as comic strips and radio programs. Better known for his role as a pitchman for children’s shoes, the comic strip character Buster Brown made an appearance on this valentine card that could double as a marionette.

A Touch of Class

Classroom exchanges of valentine cards became a widespread practice in the Baby Boom years, following World War II. Kids applied their creativity to decorate boxes for their desks to receive valentines from their fellow students. And manufacturers gladly produced packaged sets of valentines that included one card for the teacher and cards for the other kids.

From Dora to Star Wars

Today, licensed characters from television, video games, movies, and toy lines dominate the valentines designed for kids to receive or send. These valentines reflect not only changes in children’s interests, but also changing demographics and broader social and cultural shifts toward diversity and inclusivity.

Humor and Valentine Pranks
Despite Valentine’s Day’s association with romance—and all the associated hearts and flowers—the holiday has also generated its share of playful responses. In the 19th century, Valentine-themed pranks proliferated, and otherwise upstanding citizens thought nothing of sending satirical or downright nasty valentine cards—anonymously, of course.

Comicals vs. Sentimentals

By the middle of the 1800s, the valentine market was almost evenly split between cards described as “comicals” and the traditionally romantic ones known as “sentimentals,” despite the sentimentals being more elaborate and costing more.

Pranks and Cranks

Before the penny post, recipients paid the postage on mail, inspiring a popular Valentine’s Day prank of sending insulting cards or packages filled with heavy but worthless contents to a target, who then had to pay the cost of the postage. An even more widespread behavior during the Victorian period involved anonymously sending “Vinegar Valentines” with grotesque caricatures and rude verses to individuals the sender disliked.

Skidoo

For a day we associate today with sweetness and love, the humorous and derogatory valentine cards of years past could be utterly unromantic, such as this one that definitively kisses off a potential object of affection.

Do You Carrot for Me?

In the early part of the 20th century, Valentine’s Day humor began to shift away from insulting Vinegar Valentines and moved toward bad puns of all sorts. This example from a set of 12 postcards reveal that fruits and vegetables could be enlisted as the subject matter for valentines, as long as they were accompanied by a pun-inspired inscription.

Living in the Land of Love
Whatever else has changed through the years, romance and affection persist for young and old alike, and we continue to send cards to our friends, family, and sweethearts on Valentine’s Day. The valentine cards that we create or purchase allow us to playfully express everything from humorous jabs to amorous flirtations on the one day a year that many of us feel comfortable with sharing our emotions and affections.
Credits: Story

Heart of the Matter: A History of Valentine Cards is produced by The Strong National Museum of Play.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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