Valentine's Day Cards: A History

Valentine's Day Cards: A History

Most of us have given hundreds of Valentine's Day cards over the years, when you consider the long-standing tradition of school children exchanging cards. How did this tradition of sending Valentine's Day cards to sweethearts, friends, and family begin? We've got answers. (Hint: It started a long time before Hallmark.)

  • Guideposts: A depiction of courly love, a theme found in Geoffrey Chaucer's work

    Valentine's Day as an occasion to express romantic sentiments in writing goes back as far as the Middle Ages, a time when the month of February was thought to be the time that birds chose their mates, a notion that likely helped forge the connection in the mind of the public between Valentine's Day and romance.

    The first known mention in print of Valentine's Day appears in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Parliament of Fowls, written around 1381: "For this was Saint Valentine's day, when every bird of every kind comes to this place to choose his mate."

  • Guideposts: A depiction of Charles' imprisonment in the Tower of London from an illuminated manuscript of his poems

    Written expressions of love for St. Valentine's Day are thought to have begun in the 1400s. The oldest existing valentine is a poem that Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote for his wife in 1415, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London:

    Je suis desja d’amour tanné,

    Ma tres doulce Valentinée,
    Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,
    Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.
    Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené
    M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.

    Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
    Ma tres doulce Valentinée,
    Bien m’estoye suspeconné,
    Qu’auroye telle destinée,
    Ains que passast ceste journée,
    Combien qu’Amours l’eust ordonné.

    Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
    Ma tres doulce Valentinée.

    I am already sick of love,
    My very gentle Valentine,
    Since for me you were born too soon,
    And I for you was born too late.
    God forgives him who has estranged
    Me from you for the whole year.

    I am already sick of love,
    My very gentle Valentine,
    Well might I have suspected
    That such a destiny,
    Thus would have happened this day,
    How much that Love would have commanded.

    I am already sick of love,
    My very gentle Valentine.

  • Guideposts: Margery Brews' Valentine's Day letter to John Paston.

    The oldest existing Valentine message written in English dates to 1477. It was from one Margery Brews to a gentleman named John Paston. It begins, "Unto my right wellbeloved Valentine John Paston," and goes on to explain that she has asked her mother to try to convince her father to increase the amount of Margery's dowry, but that John shouldn't get his hopes up (we're paraphrasing).

  • Guideposts: A humorous valentine card collected in an early 1800s volume called A Laughable Collection of Quizzical and Merry Valentines

    By the 19th century, it was common practice for sweethearts of all classes and backgrounds to give small gifts and notes to express their affection on St. Valentine's Day, and it's interesting to note that the humorous Valentine's Day cards that are so familiar to us today are nothing new. The above is from a book titled A Laughable Collection of Quizzical and Merry Valentines that was published in the early 1800s.

  • Guidepsts: Esther Howland Valentine card, "Affection" ca. 1870s

    It's thought that Americans began sending handmade valentines in the 1700s, but one Esther Howland is widely considered the mother of American valentines. She began marketing mass-produced Valentine's Day cards in the 1840s, at a time when most valentines were imported from Europe (and were therefore too expensive for many to afford).

    Howland's brother was a traveling salesman and took her samples on the road with him. Upon his return, he had collected orders totaling $5,000, and Howland's company, later to be called the New England Valentine Company, was off and running. The company eventually grossed as much $100,000 a year until Howland sold the business in 1881.

  • Guideposts: A lavish Valentine's Day from the Victorian Era.

    The Victorian Era was the golden age of Valentine cards in England. Commercially produced cards were produced by the thousands, many including birds with real feathers, dried flowers and glass hearts, along with the familiar ribbons and lace. And in a time when in-person communications were generally more circumspect, the sentiments expressed in these cards were anything but. Unabashedly sentimental expressions of affection and devotion were the norm.

  • Guideposts: A platonic Valentine's Day postcard

    If you think the practice of sending valentines not just to one's sweetheart but also to family and friends is a relatively recent custom, perhaps started by card companies, you're in for a surprise.  It extends at least as far back as the 19th century.

  • Guideposts: A collection of vintage Valentine cards for kids

    The U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that 190 million valentines are mailed each year, and when you add in the cards exchanged among young children at school, that figure rises to 1 billion, placing Valentine's Day in second place for the most cards sent (Christmas comes in first, with an estimated 2.6 billion cards sent each December).

  • Guideposts: A vintage valentine with an old-fashioned schoolhouse pictured on it.

    Because of those classroom exchanges, school teachers, as a group, receive more valentines than anyone else, and who is more deserving?



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