Valentine’s Day cards have become a standard holiday category of greeting cards throughout the United States. What is now an annual tradition grew from handmade tokens of affection to decorative imported lace and floral designs from Europe to card-making as a home-based business. The history of Valentine’s Day cards in America is a combination of creativity, ingenuity and romance.
The practice of sending good wishes on February 14 is linked to a third century Roman priest, Valentinus, who wrote a farewell message on that date to the jailer’s daughter the night before his execution. According to legend, he signed it “from your Valentine.” The 16th and 17th centuries saw a growing popularity of celebrating February 14 in England by giving gifts to a special loved one. When the English colonists arrived in America, they brought their Valentine’s Day traditions with them of handmade tokens of affection, preferably hand-delivered. Handwritten notes, on paper imported from England, often accompanied valentine gifts by the mid-18th century.
The forerunner of the Valentine’s Day card developed in the 19th century. For those who felt they could not compose a verse to express their sentiment, booklets were available called Valentine Writers. These contained several verses in various styles ranging from romantic to humorous; some were riddles and other verses related to specific professions. Different pamphlets of verses had their own titles such as Cupid’s Annual Charter and The School of Love. Some of the pamphlets were of verses for women to use; other pamphlets had verses suitable for men.
An example of a verse for a grocer would compare a lady’s breath to spices: “Your breath is all-spice, I declare.” The verse continued with more descriptions of her, “As plums or sugar candy.” A butcher’s valentine verse began, “So nice you dress your Lamb and Veal, My passion I cannot conceal.” Pamphlets also contained poems to use for rejecting someone’s advances. These rejections were not subtle. “Your Valentine I will not be, so prithee think no more of me.”
Decorating the cards is what made each one unique. Paper lace and floral designs were imported from England for those who wanted to design their own cards. Blank cards from England were very fashionable, made of high quality paper with satin in the center or a painted scene. The card would often have a lace paper border. Sometimes there would be a small envelope for either a locket, piece of hair or other sentimental keepsake.
Lithographed valentines were produced in 1840s and 1850s. They would be hand-painted with a blank space for a personal message. The person responsible for starting the commercial success of Valentine’s Day cards in the U. S. was a woman from Worcester, Massachusetts, Esther Allan Howland.
Inspired by receiving her first English valentine after graduating from college in 1847, Howland wanted to make similar cards. She ordered floral designs and paper lace from England and began taking orders. There was such a demand for the product that she could not do this by herself. Her friends helped her and she placed her first ad in the Worcester paper, The Daily Spy, Feb. 5, 1850. Her home-based business supplied a steady income that reached $100,000 a year. It was Howland’s idea to place brightly colored paper under paper lace so that the color would show through. It was also her idea to have a raised shadow box on the front of the card. Both of these designs continue to be used today.
She sold her business to the George C. Whitney Company in 1881 upon her retirement. By 1888, the company was one of the largest publishers of valentines in the nation with offices in New York, Boston and Chicago. Whitney stopped importing paper from England and installed machines that would make paper lace and embossing as part of the total operation. Like Howland, the company had its own insignia on the cards. Whitney’s cards contained verses printed on them.
Germany’s contribution to the history of Valentine’s Day cards in America began during the latter half of the 19th century. Many of their imported cards had pull-outs, cardboard rests for easier table display and some could be hung on a wall. Bright colors depicted whimsical scenes of children. More American companies entered the valentine business in the 1870s and 1880s, including Louis Prang of Boston who created a card with satin fringe around it. By the end of the century, valentines were being mass-produced in several countries. It was Howland though who first turned Valentine’s Day cards into a commercial success in America.
By: Cynthia Collins