NEW YORK – How do I love you? Let me count the ways … A handmade or printed valentine is one popular way to tell your spouse, parent, child or sweetheart of your feelings on Feb. 14. Evolving from religious devotionals and sung/spoken messages of love, sending cards on St. Valentine’s Day has been a tradition for centuries.
One of the earliest known valentines is in the collection of the British Museum in London and was sent by Catherine Mossday to a Mr. Brown. Published in 1797, the hand-colored card included a handwritten message from its sender that is sad and heartfelt, reiterating past requests for him to please visit her. One wonders how the relationship turned out or if Ms. Mossday found someone else to return her ardor.
There are endless variations of valentines, from lace-trimmed Victorian cards to die-cut and pop-up cards. Pop-ups, sometimes referred to as mechanical cards, have been perennially popular and were made in France, England and America to name a few. Clever use of paper, layering, string/wire or use of honeycombed tissue elements make these cards pop up. Their collectibility is largely based on the card’s elegance or whimsy. Most also have a footed base that allows them to stand up for easy display, adding to their appeal. They can easily be stored in books too. At the height of the Victorian era, collecting valentines was like a status symbol and eligible young women would have scrapbooks of valentines they had received that visitors could peruse and admire.
Before the advent of affordable postage and expanded mail delivery in the 1840s in England and America, two countries where Valentine’s Day is avidly celebrated, sending valentines by mail was expensive and they were often hand-delivered instead. The penny stamp in England, for example, revolutionized the holiday and it’s estimated that some 40,000 cards were sent in 1840, the first year that letters of a modest weight could be mailed for a penny. The holiday soon became big business and today is a billions-dollar industry with cards a large part of that along with flowers, chocolates and gifts.
The origins of Valentine’s Day cards is rife with urban legends and stories going back as far as the Roman Empire. A popular legend is that St. Valentine was in jail for performing weddings of local soldiers, where he is said to have fallen in love with his jailer’s daughter and sent her a love note signed “your Valentine.” This story is entertaining but given the literacy rate at the time and the odds he would be able to get pen and paper while in prison makes it seem a bit unlikely.
Many holidays are lamented for being overly commercial and Valentine’s Day became widely commercialized in the United States starting in the mid-1800s as paper became mass-produced and printing was cheap. Hallmark now rules the greeting card industry here but before the company’s debut in 1911, there were several small stores up and down the East Coast carrying fine valentines, mostly imported from Europe.
Esther Howland in Worcester, Mass., was one of these early proponents, importing fancy paper, lace and other items from England to make valentines here. Tapping into her squad of lady friends to work, she ran a profitable cottage industry up until the 1860s making and selling valentines. Companies like Beistle in Shippensburg, Pa., also got into the greeting card business around 1900 and Valentine’s Day was soon a popular addition to the company’s product line.
The more unique the card, either in sentiment or design, the more collectors will covet that particular example. The most popular depictions in pop-up Valentines are scenes of love or friendship. Commonly seen are fetching young ladies dressed to the nines, often standing in front of a beautiful house or in a garden, or images of couples dancing or being serenaded by Venetian gondoliers. From roses to lilies of the valley, flowers are prolific in valentine cards especially in early 1900s cards. These cards usually feature elegant young women in poofy gowns and frilly hats, often surrounded by flowers. Cherubs and angels are also a popular motif. Whimsical cards often feature people pictured on a bicycle or in a trolley car and the best examples are not rectangular cards but silhouetted and shaped cards cut into the forms of people or objects.
Sentiments vary from shy or cutesy to saccharine with messages like “Valentine, You ‘suit’ me well / from head to toes/ I think you’re swell” on a pop-up card showing a boy and girl enjoying a day at the beach to “I send you this Valentine to say I like you better every day.”