As I covered in my two previous posts on this subject, Valentine’s Day as a holiday to celebrate romantic love and lovers was well established by the mid-14oos. If you missed those posts, either scroll down or click the links–
February 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day was connected, never to waver. In England, most of Europe, the exchange of hand-written poems and love notes, and small gifts, became more and more common as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries advanced. During the early 1700s, Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian poetical art known as the “language of flowers” to Europe. Floral dictionaries were published, permitting the exchange of romantic secrets via a lily or lilac, for example, culminating in entire conversations taking place within a bouquet of flowers. The red rose, believed to be the favored flower of Venus, Roman Goddess of Love, became universally accepted to represent romantic love and quickly gained popularity.
Around this same time, England saw the creation of “writers.” A “writer” was a booklet comprised of verses and messages which could be copied onto gilt-edged paper or decorative sheets. One popular “writer” contained not only “be my valentine” types of verses for the men to send to their sweethearts, but also acceptances or “answers” which the ladies could then return. By 1723 these “writers” crossed the pond to America, starting the valentine craze here. Late 18th century to early 19th century valentines were often religious in nature, and it is suspected that the “Sacred Heart” and Angels often depicted on these cards evolved into the “Valentine Heart” and accompanying Cupid.
Cards hand crafted by the giver were very common, but by the latter decades of the 1700s manufactured cards were gaining popularity. These quantity produced cards were miniature works of art, usually hand painted, and lavishly decorated with laces, silk or satin, flowers (made from the feathers of tropical birds), glass filigrees, gold-leaf or even perfumed sachets! Machine, factory produced valentines appeared in the early 1800s, but they were simplistic, usually black and white only, and not as popular until much later when advanced techniques in printing design were possible. Lovers much preferred the fancy variety, especially those wildly passionate Victorians!
Interestingly enough, it was during the reputed period of sexual repression after 1840 that romantic notions of all kind burst forth. Valentine cards became even more widespread thanks to the “penny post” mailing service created by Sir Henry Cole making it cheaper to mail written valentines.
During this time, it was also considered “proper” to collect and display collections of postcards. Friends gathered in Victorian and Edwardian parlors would sit for hours leafing through albums. Photographers, studios, printers, and businesses continually strived for new and exciting subjects to satisfy a public anxious for innovative items to impress their acquaintances. To make their cards stand out, people often sought for real photographic postcards. As opposed to mass-produced lithographs, these were actual photographs made with a postcard-printed back. The photography studios employed women to hand-tint the black-and-white images. Preferred subjects were women, children, flowers, and couples, posed and arranged in an effort to portray the idealized virtues of the Era. Some of these cards contained tiny mirrors with the message “Look at my Beloved,” while others were called “Cobweb Valentines” because the center could be lifted by a tassel to reveal a cobweb effect of paper with a picture of a couple or a romantic message underneath.
Sadly, the vast majority of these valentines are lost. Few exist from before 1850. The oldest valentine known to exist is from 1790, the original safely stowed at the British Postal Museum. It can be seen here, and is a handcrafted puzzle that unfurls to expose poetic letters. The face of the card reads:
“My dear the Heart which you behold,?
Will break when you the same unfold,?
Even so my heart with lovesick pain,
?Sure wounded is and breaks in twain.”
The highly romantic sensibilities of the Regency and Victorian Eras lifted Valentine’s Day to a whole other level. Gradually over the years such delicacies as chocolates, jewels, candlelit dinners, and champagne would be added to the flowers and cards.
For more information, very detailed, just on Valentine Card history alone, visit this link: History of the Card
Tomorrow is the BIG day! Are you ready?