Valentine’s Day is nearing and as we shop for gifts and cards, it’s fun to reflect on the traditions of the past. The custom of making and sending cards for this holiday has been around for more than 150 years. The Museum’s own collection features more than 65 unique handmade and vintage Valentine’s Day cards created and sent around the turn of the century, with the earliest dating back to the 1850s. From cards made out of doilies and lace, to a printed card featuring a duck asking, “Waddle I do to prove my love?” images from this collection can be viewed on our virtual exhibit online.
The History Behind Valentine’s Day
Much legend and lore surrounds the origin of St. Valentine’s Day. Historians generally agree that this celebration of love and devotion borrows elements from both ancient Roman and early Christian traditions. The holiday became popular in the early seventeenth century in Great Britain and is now celebrated in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.
The tradition of sending ornate cards as part of the Valentine’s Day celebration on February 14 began during the Victorian Era. During this time, it was common for people from all social classes to express feelings of friendship and ardor through the exchange of notes, small gifts, or hand-written verse. Elaborate postcards, and later folding cards, were hand-crafted at home or in small factories throughout Great Britain. These were often adorned with lace and ribbon, colored illustrations, and embossed borders.
By the mid-1800’s, the popularity of exchanging Valentine’s Day cards through the mail exploded, due to improved mass-production printing technology and reforms in the postal service. In 1841, the first year after postal reforms were put in place, more than 400,000 Valentine’s Day cards were sent through the mail!
At around this same time in the US, the popularity of exchanging cards was growing. The New England Valentine Company, founded by Massachusetts entrepreneur Esther A. Howland (1828–1904), is credited with being the first to start a Valentine’s Day card business in the US. It quickly grew into a very profitable endeavor with her valentines gaining renown throughout the country, and earning her the title, “The Mother of the American Valentine.”
Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, Valentine’s Day cards make up 25% of all greeting cards sold annually, or an estimated 1 billion cards, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday. Consider making your own valentines this year, or check out local vintage stores for old-fashioned sentiments to share.
Interested in learning more about the history of St. Valentine’s Day? Check out these links for more information: