From the Collections of The Strong National Museum of Play | Rochester, New York
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Heart of the Matter: A History of Valentine Cards is produced by The Strong National Museum of Play.