Romantic Writing: The History of Valentine’s Cards

Valentine’s Day, occurring this coming weekend in many countries, is an increasingly popular phenomenon worldwide. The date, style and manner of recognising the event can differ greatly by location, but aspects of the tradition can now be found on all continents, and in many places it is associated with the exchange of cards. An article in Gale’s Gale Academic OneFile suggests that, according to the Greeting Card Association, one billion cards are now sent each year, making Valentine’s Day ‘the second-largest card-sending holiday of the year, surpassed only by Christmas.’[1] 

Having previously heard hearsay that the event was the result of a relatively recent marketing collaboration aiming to increase sales, I became curious as to exactly how and why the tradition developed and, keen for more information, I turned to the Gale digital archives and databases.

Several articles on Gale’s InfoTrac platform look back to the genesis of the event. Many, such as ‘The origin of Valentine’s Day isn’t romantic’ in Gale Academic OneFile, point to Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival of fertility when ‘men would match up with women after pulling her name from an urn’[2].  Several articles also refer to the execution of a priest named Valentine in the middle of February, 270 A.D., for continuing to perform matrimonial ceremonies for soldiers after Emperor Claudius II had banned marriage in the military[3].  This may have injected the necessary romance, but another legend provides a more direct route towards today’s written traditions; when imprisoned, St Valentine fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, leaving her a farewell note upon his execution signed ‘from your Valentine’ . If true, this would have been the first written example of ‘a valentine’ – the type of correspondence we now name after the original author – sparking the outpouring of similarly signed romantic notes in subsequent centuries.

Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, however, includes a newspaper article from 1880 which suggests an alternative origin of the romantic epistles associated with Valentine’s Day, attributing the inception of written Valentines to Charles, Duke of Orléans. Imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, he wrote many romantic verses for his wife in France, many of which are now held by the British Museum.

Who sent the first Valentine
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Perhaps the earliest surviving valentines written in English are those by Margery Brewes to her future husband, John Paston, composed in the mid-fifteenth century. They’re now part of the Paston Letters, a collection explored in several analytical works in Gale Literature (example 1, example 2). Norman Davis’ essay in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800 says ‘in the whole collection there is nothing to match the tenderness and charm of Margery Brewes in her two ‘Valentines’ to John III. She begged him “that this bill be not seyn of non erthely creature safe only your selfe”’.

By the Renaissance, the notion of a day for lovers in mid-February, and of poetic celebration of the tradition, was entrenched and familiar. Significantly, it is referred to by some of the most famous writers of the period, such as John Donne and, of course, Shakespeare in Hamlet (1603);

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.[5]

We also find traces of one of the most stereotypical phrases found in Valentine’s cards – ‘Roses are red, violets are blue…’ – in Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene (1590);

She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.[6]

Building on these early romantic verses and traditions, the sending of Valentine’s cards increased throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century with the greater availability and reduced cost of postal delivery, which also contributed to creating the tradition of anonymity that still remains today. Initially they were hand-made and extremely intricate, but in the early 1800s Valentine’s cards began to be assembled in factories, and by the end of the century they were produced largely mechanically. It’s thought that around 60,000 Valentine’s cards were sent each year in Britain in the 1830s. Pre-Victorian Valentine’s cards are hard to come by, but many mass-produced cards survive due to the quantities in which they were made.

About the same time, the practice was brought to North America by migrating settlers, and it was there from around 1847 that some of the most elaborate and famous Valentine’s cards were mass-produced by Esther Howland. Previously Howland’s father, a stationer in Massachusetts, had imported cards from England. Taking inspiration from these English valentines, Esther designed her own cards, sourcing lace and other creative materials from England, and set up a production line of staff to create them. ‘She…gradually expanded the business to a $100,000-a-year enterprise and [had] a monopoly [on] valentine production in the United States.’

The Smithsonian Magazine, (available in Gale’s resource Smithsonian Collections Online,) published a couple of fascinating, image-rich articles in the 1970s and 1980s which discussed the beauty, quirks and context of the 60,000 Valentine’s cards held by the Smithsonian Institution.

v-Yellow Flower Shakespeare card
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v-Esther Howland Card
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v-These earliest printed Valentines...
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v-Red Lace Card
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v-Envelopes were coming into use...
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We also find Valentine’s cards reflected social situations, with those from the American Civil War era featuring sweethearts parting or a soldier’s tent with opening flaps, and cards from the 1920s depicting women as flappers.

v-Soldier tent card
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v-Flapper woman card
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Another Gale resource, Gale General OneFile, includes an interesting article from Country Living that looks at the antique value today of cards made by Esther Howland, and others of a similar vintage.

v-Antique article - pdf in front of interface, plus expanded text
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Hot on the heels of these manufacturers, Hallmark was established in 1910 by the Hall brothers. From here, it is easy to see how valentines have evolved into the cards that flood our stationers each February – many still produced by Hallmark. Thus my brief probe into the Gale archives has shown that the written romances exchanged on Valentine’s Day have a long, rich and colourful history.

v-Hallmark expands screenshot
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v-29 M cards screenshot
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For more information about the digital resources featured in this artice, or to request a trial, please get in touch with us today.

[1] ‘St. Valentine: The man, the myth, the legend.’ UWIRE Text 29 Apr. 2015: 1. ACADEMIC ONEFILE
[2] “The origin of Valentine’s Day isn’t romantic.” UWIRE Text 14 Feb. 2014: 1. ACADEMIC ONEFILE
[3] “St. Valentine: The man, the myth, the legend.” UWIRE Text 29 Apr. 2015: 1. ACADEMIC ONEFILE ; “The origin of Valentine’s Day isn’t romantic.” UWIRE Text 14 Feb. 2014: 1. ACADEMIC ONEFILE
[4] “For Love or For Money?” UWIRE Text 14 Feb. 2012: 1. ACADEMIC ONEFILE ; “The origin of Valentine’s Day isn’t romantic.” UWIRE Text 14 Feb. 2014: 1. ACADEMIC ONEFILE
[5] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5
[6] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1590), Book Three, Canto 6, Stanza 6

About the Author

I’m currently a Marketing Executive in the Gale International Strategic Marketing team. I love the combination of creativity, strategic thinking and project management required in this busy role. Having studied History and English at Durham, it’s a great pleasure to work for a company producing historical archives and literary materials – meandering through Gale’s abundant resources never really feels like work! And to pad out this depiction of me, I can frequently be found running through the Hampshire countryside, and have a strong partiality for coffee cake.