Valentine cards have a long history. The general tradition has remained about the same, but the design of the cards, the manner of delivery, the type of verse, and the number of handmade versus factory produced cards has changed over the years. In times past, they were definitely “works of art.”
The Middle Ages:
Between the 1400s and 1500s, valentine greetings were verbal messages or songs sung to lovers. This practice gradually changed to valentine messages that were written on paper. It is believed that the first written valentines were penned by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in England in the early 1400s. During his imprisonment in the Tower of London, he wrote romantic messages to his wife in France. Sixty of these valentines can be found at the British Museum in London.
During the 1600s, February 14th became the official day when valentines written on paper were commonly given to lover and friends. At this time, valentine exchanges were most popular in England and some other countries in Europe. By the early 1700s, this practice was adopted by the Americans. The U.S. imported what were called valentine “writers.” These were books filled with all types of verses and valentine messages to be copied onto decorative paper. Starting in the late Eighteenth Century, some valentine cards were religious. It is commonly believed that the “Sacred Heart” shown on these cards became the “Valentine Heart” and the Angel found on these cards evolved into “Cupid.”
The 1800s :
Up until the 1800s, valentine cards were handmade. Small assembly lines were begun to make the first commercial valentine cards. They were often made with beautiful lace, ribbon, paints, decorative paper, and satin. The small assembly line made the process a little less time-consuming. A short time later, larger card companies began using machines to make cards.
Despite the popularity of manufactured cards, homemade cards were still being made. Around the time of the Civil War, giving valentine cards was very popular. The theme of many cards was “lovers parting.” Some cards had a tent with a flap to open and show a photo of the soldier going off to war. Another one showed a church with a flap for a door and inside was a bride and groom. There were also cards with a place to hide a lock of hair.
In Victorian times, valentines were usually hand delivered to a lover or friend’s door, but around the turn of the century, postal rates went down. As a result, the penny post card valentine became popular. Victorian valentines reflected the style of clothing and decorative styles of the time. The beautiful materials used to make cards included, fabric, tissue paper, watercolors, paper puffs, embossed paper, lace, silk, satin, flowers, feathers and gold leaf. Ladies, of course, were never allowed to send valentines to men.
Another strange type of valentine popular at this time was called a “vinegar valentine.” The reason they were called “vinegar valentines” was because of their acidic messages. They were meant to make fun of or scorn the recipient. They were made of cheap thin paper and cost only 1 – 3 cents. These cruel cards were “no joke,” they were meant to inflict pain on the recipient. Given by a vengeful sender to a school teacher, spinster, doctor, lawyer or politician, they had a caricature on the front with a message such as this:
Are you Gertie Gabber?
Her talking can quite tiresome grow
Her tongue keeps waggling all the day
And really nothing does she say
In the 1800s and early 1900s the recipients of mail had to pay the postage. This added another insult to the injury of receiving the card. When vinegar valentines were made into postcards, some postmen refused to deliver these obnoxious cards. “Hats off” to those postmen who realized the harm the vinegar cards caused.
Vinegar cards were also a reflection of the social climate of the times. Some were sent to members of social movements such as women’s rights. Some vinegar valentines were still being printed until the mid 1900s.
Most valentine cards of today don’t have the heavy sentiment that they did in past centuries. The verse designs are lighter and more direct. Cards come in all sizes and shapes – musical cards, kid cards, humorous, and e-mail cards. Usually cards are given along with candy, flowers, lingerie or perfume.
The “look” of valentine cards has changed over the years, but the purpose is still the same – expression of love and friendship. The number of cards sent on Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas cards.