The Early History of Valentine’s Day Cards: Origin of Cupid’s Love Notes Dates Back Six Hundred Years or More

The historical roots of Valentine’s Day can be traced back both to ancient Rome and to the 4th century days of early Christianity. Initially, sentiments felt by a young man were expressed to his beloved on Valentine’s Day through the spoken word or through song. However, as the practice of Valentine greetings spread during the Middle Ages throughout Europe, written messages became the vogue.

The Duke of Orleans and the First Known Valentine Card

Charles, Duke of Orleans, (1391-1465), father of the future French King, Louis XII, and a poet of note, was captured at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and imprisoned in England. While being held in the Tower of London, he composed a Valentine poem for his wife, Bonne d’Armagnac. The first two lines of the poem were:

Je suis deja d’amour tanné

Ma tres dolce Valentinée”¦

Unfortunately, Charles may never have seen his “very sweet Valentine” again, as she died before his return to France in 1440. The poem, the oldest known Valentine card, is now part of the manuscript collection in the British Library in London.

British Valentine Cards in the 19th Century

Valentine’s Day began to be celebrated by the general populace in Great Britain in the 1600s and by the mid-1700s it became common for lovers in all English social classes to exchange small gifts, such as gloves, or handwritten notes.

By the early 1800s, printed cards, lowered postage costs, and the use of envelopes to protect messages from prying eyes made Valentine cards even more popular. Soon, the English became the world leader in the manufacturing of these cards. Their products were characterized by lace paper, velvet and satin ribbons, embossed with the best quality material.

Sometimes these cards had secret panels, hiding messages meant only for the eyes of their receivers. Others followed the more traditional method of offering a simple verse. A third type used tabs that when gently pulled would cause a figure or part of its features to move. In the later 1800s, the noted British artist, Kate Greenaway added her talents to the industry, creating illustrations that often featured small children or scenic gardens.

Esther Allen Howland Corners the U.S. Market

Until 1850, Americans relied upon British-made cards or homemade creations to express their Valentine greetings. Then, a young Massachusetts woman, now called “The Mother of the Valentine,“ made the momentous decision to mass produce her own creations.

Shortly, after graduating from Mount Holyoke College, Esther Howland (1828-1904), received her first English Valentine card. Impressed by its beauty, she decided to combine her own artistic skills with the finest of materials, most imported from England, to create her own unique cards.

The results were elaborate creations featuring real lace, ribbons, floral decorations, and colorful pictures. Her works were equal to British products and included innovations such as using brightly colored paper under her white lace to create an eye-appealing contrast, and the use of a built-up technique called the “shadow box.” Each of her works was identifiable by a red “H” or “N.E.V. Co.”

Until she retired, Howland’s company had a near monopoly on American Valentine cards, some of them selling for $10, and was grossing, based on today’s dollar, over two million dollars annually. She sold her company to wholesale stationery dealer George C. Whitney (1842-1915) in 1881 .

Whitney’s company copied many of Howland’s designs, substituting only a small red “W” for the famous red “H” and was one of the leading makers of American Valentine cards until it went out of business in 1942. He also installed machinery to emboss paper and to produce lace paper, thus eliminating imports from England and reducing costs.

The Valentine Industry Today

According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion valentine cards, 85% purchased by women, are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. It is only topped by the estimated 2.6 billion Christmas cards sent out each year.

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