Esther Howland, the woman who produced the first commercial American Valentines Day card in the 1830’s, sold a mind boggling $5,000 worth of cards during her first year in business. The Valentines Day industry in the United States, Mexico, Canada, France, UK, Australia has been booming ever since. Today, over 1 billion Valentine Day cards are sent in USA alone each year – second in number only to Christmas cards, according to the Greeting Card Association.
Who are the lucky recipients of all these cards?
Women purchase around 85% of all Valentine Day cards. In addition to cards, there are millions of boxes of chocolates and bouquets of roses purchased (mostly by men) for the February 14 holiday.
When did the Valentine Day frenzy begin?
Verbal and sung Valentine messages began to be replaced by written missives in Europe in the 1400´s. The first written Valentin card, called “poetical or amorous addresses”, are usually attributed to the imprisoned young Frenchman, Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. During his confinement in the Tower of London, after the Battle of Agincourt, he reportedly passed the time by writing romantic verses for his wife in France.
During the 1400´s, one valentine showed a drawing of a knight and a lady, with Cupid in the act of sending an arrow to pierce the knight’s heart.
By the 1500´s, written Valentin messages were commonplace.
During the 1600´s people made their own valentines using original verses or poems with appropriate verse.
The English attitude toward St Valentine’s Day in the middle of the 1700´s is summed up in this verse printed in Poor Robin’s Almanac in 1757:
This month bright Phoebus enter Pisces,
The maids will have good store kisses.
For always when the fun comes there,
Valentine’s Day is drawing near.
And both the men and maids incline,
To choose them each a Valentine.
And if a man gets one he loves,
He gives her first a pair of gloves.
And by the way remember this,
To seal the favour with a kiss.
This kiss begets more love and then,
That love begets a kiss again.
Until this trade the man doth catch,
And then he doth propose the match.
The woman’s willing, tho’ she’s shy,
She gives the man this soft reply.
I’ll not resolve one thing or other,
Until I first consult with my mother.
When she says so, tis half a grant,
And may be taken for consent.
The first commercial valentine appeared circa 1800 and were rather simplistic. But by the 1830’s and 1840’s Valentine letters contained delicate and artistic messages. Valentine’s letters made of fine papers decorated with satin, ribbon and lace commanded high prices. They had pictures of turtle doves, lover’s knots in gold or silver, bows and arrows, and bleeding hearts. All of these symbols have become associated with love and lovers.
In the 1840’s the first mechanical valentines were introduced. By pulling a tab, a figure or object on the card coupled with messages on early valentines included:
”Love” “I fondly love thee”.
“My orb of day departs with thee”.
“I love thee! Oh! I love thee! Dearer art thou than life.
I love thee! Say, wilt thou be my wife?
This Valentin’s Day, to the church let’s away;
No longer I’ll wait, let us marry.
You promised, dear maid, that you would be mine.
If I, till today, would tarry.
Sociologists theorize that printed cards began to take the place of the letters, particularly in Great Britain, because they were an easy way for people to express their feelings in a time when direct expression of emotions was not fashionable. Lonely sailors created some of the more unusual valentines during the Victorian era – they used seashells of various sizes, to create hearts, flowers and other designs or to cover heart shaped boxes.
After 1723, American valentines began to grow with the import from England of valentin writers. A writer was a booklet containing a vast array of verses and messages that could be copied onto gilt-edged letter paper or other decorative sheets. One popular writer contained not only “be my valentine” type verses for men to send, but also acceptance or “answers” which women could return. Here is an example:
Valentine a short time since I danced with you.
And from that hour lov’d you true.
Your pleasing form, your charming air.
Might with a fabl’d grace compare;
Your accents, so melodious sweet,
Still on my ear does seem to beat.
And tis the first wish of my life,
To win my Delia for a wife.
Deign, my sweet maid, aline to send,
And may love’s saint my plea defend.
Answer Your Valentine is very kind,
Nor did a cool reception find.
Your company gave me delight,
When I danced with you t’other night.
Then mutually we did decline,
Our hearts to love, my Valentine.
From then on, Valentin became over ornamented and less artistic and during the Gay Nineties, they were adorned with garish spun glass, mother of pearl, imitation jewels, or silk fringe. Proof of the less attractive, cheap looking valentine is seen in the vinegar valentine. John McLaughlin, a New York printer, created these comic valentines that were printed on cheap paper in crude colours. His messages made fun of old maids, teachers and others. Comical Designs done in 1870 by the American cartoonist Charles Howard were called “penny dreadfuls” – a perfect name for them because they sold for a penny and the designs were dreadful.
In our century we have seen a change from the heavy sentimentality of earlier days to what can be best described as a light touch. Nowadays a valentine usually accompanies a more elaborate gift of candy, flowers, perfume etc. And even school children usually celebrate St Valentine’s Day with a party at school. Prior to the party the children make a decorated box with a slot in the top. During the party the children distribute valentines to their classmates’ Valentines Box.
Valentines cards are manufactured on an enormous scale today, ranging from the sentimental to sophisticated and humorous. There is a valentine for everyone-sweetheart, spouse, children, parents, teachers and even your pet. In terms of the number of greeting cards sent, Valentines Day is second only to Christmas.