humorpop culture

The History of Valentine Cards: How Do I Love Thee?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Most of the modern world knows of Valentinius, aka St. Valentine, the martyred saint for whom the holiday of lovers is named. How many of us, however, know about the custom of sending valentine cards? Where did that come from and why do we still do it? Read on for some light-hearted information and, hopefully, a few laughs as well.

The very first valentine ever sent in the history of the world is associated with St. Valentine himself, who left a note for the jailer’s blind daughter before being executed by King Claudius II, also known affectionately as Claudius The Cruel. The king was mad at St. Valentine because he secretly married soldiers in the Roman legions against his express royal wishes. "From your Valentine," the note read, as Valentinius was led away to a death by stoning, and passed into the annals of love, sop, sentimentality and posterity.

St. Valentine was martyred on February 14 around the year 270 AD, and by all accounts, was a chaste and dutiful servant of his Lord. (His connection with Eros is, therefore, even more ironic than interesting.) In any case, the custom of sending valentine cards persisted well into the Middle Ages, when lovers said or sang their verses of love to one another. Considering that most people bathed about once a month in those days, it’s a wonder lovers managed to stand next to each other, much less make love and sing praises.

In England, around 1400, written valentines, which were given in place of actual gifts began to appear in the form of paper notes. Constructed of colored paper and designed by hand, many were beautifully painted with watercolors and colored inks. The oldest valentine in existence, which is currently in the British Museum, dates back to the 15th century. It depicts a knight and a lady, with Cupid in the act of sending an arrow to pierce the knight’s heart. (Might be a difficult task even for Eros, if the gentleman is still wearing his armor!)

In France, a young Charles, Duke of Orleans, was one of the earliest creators of what was known in his day as "poetical or amorous addresses." From his sojourn in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (no Hilton Hotel by any stretch of the mind), he sent several poems of love to his anxious wife in France.

Hand-made valentines were made in many different ways. Acrostics had verses in which the first lines spelled out the loved one’s name. Cutouts were made by folding paper and cutting out a lace-like design with very sharp scissors. Pinprick valentines simulated the look of lace by pricking tiny holes in the paper with a pin or needle. From the Orient came valentines known as Theorems or Poonah, which were created by painting designs through a stencil cut in oilpaper. Rebus valentines carried verses in which tiny pictures replaced words. An eye would replace an I, for example. It could be said that the eyes have it, but this has nothing at all to do with the expression "an eye 4 an eye," or the battle cry of three Famous Frenchmen of 1 for all and all for 1! (Aye!)

Puzzle Purse valentines, (possibly designed by the annoying ancestors of Mr. Will Shortz of New York Times crossword puzzle fame), were actually puzzles that could be folded and re-folded. Hidden among the folds were verses that had to be read in a certain order. Fraktur valentines were known for their ornamental lettering, which was done in the style of the illuminated manuscripts of The Middle Ages (for the more discriminating and pious valentine senders and sendees).

All of the above mentioned cards were entirely hand-made, and that fashion didn’t change until the early 1800s when valentines began to be assembled in factories. The earlier ones were black and white pictures that were painted by the factory workers. Real lace and ribbons adorned fancier valentines, and in the mid-1800s, paper lace was introduced.

A Mount Holyoke College student named Esther Howland crafted the first American valentines around 1830. Her father was a stationer in Worcester, Massachusetts, who imported valentine cards every year from England. Esther, who became known as "the Mother of The Valentine", began her own "Worcester" collection, and imported lace, fine papers and other supplies on her own. Her creations were the first paper valentines, made with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as "scrap." She employed several assistants and her own brothers helped her market these creations. She became the very first successful American "career woman," and her sales soared to about $100,000 annually, which is not bad by 1830s’ standards. She later sold her thriving business to the George C. Whitney Company.

The 1840s introduced the first mechanical valentines. By pulling a tab, a figure or object on the card could be made to move. Three-dimensional pop-outs were available at this time as well, although they were not as common. In the 1870s, American cartoonist, Charles Howard, made comic valentines known as penny dreadfuls. His designs, which made fun of teachers and old maids, were executed on cheap paper and in crude colors. If one may ask what’s in a name, in this case the answer is clear, as the valentines sold for a penny a piece and the designs were indeed dreadful. During the 1890s valentines became overly ornamental, adorned with garish spun glass, mother-of-pearl, imitation jewels and silky fringe (and perhaps even other unwanted Victorians).

In the early 1900s a card company named Norcross began to manufacture valentines. In 1910, Joyce C. Hall, a poor but energetic teenager from Norfolk, Nebraska, arrived in Kansas City with his inventory of a few dozen postcards. Determined to make a name for himself in the business world, his first office was in the local YMCA. By 1915, Hall Brothers (Hallmark) were manufacturing their own cards on their own presses. In 1923, J.C. and his brothers, Bill and Rollie Hall, along with their 120 employees, moved to four separate buildings in a brand new six story plant, and today their customers can still claim that they "care enough to send the very best."

The heavy sentimentality of yesteryear has been replaced with a much lighter touch. More often, a valentine card accompanies a gift as well. Today, valentine cards are manufactured on an enormous scale that covers all types of feelings about love: sentimental, sophisticated, humorous, ridiculous and sublime, just to mention a few. Even dogs and cats can receive valentines, (although to date, they are still unable to stamp them and put them in the mail). In terms of the number of cards sent annually, Valentine’s day ranks second only to Christmas.

So, don’t hesitate, my friends, to demonstrate your love and affection with the nicest card you can find on this holiday designed for lovers everywhere. Just remember that Eros is very sensitive, and doesn’t like it when he is excluded from the picture. Remember to buy a card that includes Cupid doing what he does best in whatever pictorial design you choose. Otherwise, you might end up with an arrow somewhere other than your heart.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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