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A history of Valentine's Day cards

Ready for a night on the town
Ready for a night on the town
Valentine Card ©D.P. Clarke

Today millions of cards will be given and received in the name of love and friendship. No other day, except Christmas and Mother’s Day, rivals the sheer volume of exchange. While it may seem this practice was started by modern day gift companies seeking to make a buck, Valentine’s Day cards actually have an interesting past.

The earliest recording of the practice of observing Valentine’s Day was in the mid-1600s. One Samuel Pepys mentioned it in his diaries. At that time elaborate gift exchanges took place among the wealthy. However, it wasn’t until the 1700s that people began sending notes and letters to loved ones. In the 1820s, the use of paper made especially for Valentine greetings began in the United Kingdom. And in the 1840s commercially produced Valentine cards grew in popularity. According to, “The cards were flat paper sheets, often printed with colored illustrations and embossed borders. The sheets, when folded and sealed with wax, could be mailed.”

Legend has it that a woman in Massachusetts, Esther A. Howland, received one of those English Valentines. Esther then began making Valentine cards which she sold in her father’s stationery store. When the business grew, she hired her friends to help make cards. Esther’s efforts are credited as the birth of America’s Valentine card industry. Her hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts became the center of American Valentine card production.

This method of expressing love was not always well received. In the mid-1850s an editorial was published in the New York Times criticizing the practice. It stated, “Our beaux and belles are satisfied with a few miserable lines, neatly written upon fine paper, or else they purchase a printed Valentine with verses ready made, some of which are costly, and many of which are cheap and indecent. In any case, whether decent or indecent, they only please the silly and give the vicious an opportunity to develop their propensities, and place them, anonymously, before the comparatively virtuous. The custom with us has no useful feature, and the sooner it is abolished the better.”

This negative commentary did not halt the popularity of Valentine cards, which saw a boom following the Civil War. In 1867 the New York Times interviewed the Superintendent of the Post Office, Mr. Hallett, about statistics on Valentine cards sent in 1862. In New York City alone 21,260 Valentines were received for delivery. In 1865, as the Civil War ended, New Yorkers sent more than 66,000 cards.

In 1867 some New Yorkers paid high prices for Valentines, as much as $100. By 1870 Valentines were reasonably priced. These cheaper cards targeted a wider audience. The late 1800s experienced a wane in sending Valentine cards, however, by the 1920s it picked up again.

Thus it appears that giving Valentine cards is a tradition which is here to stay. This article is a Valentine card wishing everyone love and happiness.

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