Before Hallmark! The origins of the commercialization of Valentine’s Day cards in the Victorian Era
It has been said over the years that Valentine's Day is a "Hallmark Holiday" due to the myth that it was invented to sell greeting cards. However, Valentine's Day doesn't have commercial or even romantic origins. Everything from the roots to Valentine's Day's commercialization is a tale. We need to go back to the beginning as we unwind this tale.
What are the origins of Valentine's Day?
The holiday was believed to be inspired by a pagan festival called Lupercalia that dates back as far back as the Roman Empire. The festival celebrated fertility on February 15th. It may seem romantic, but the festival was a bit morbid. A goat and a dog would be sacrificed in the same cave where the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus were believed to be born. The men would then run naked around the city, slapping women with the hides of these animals. This part of the ritual was said to promote fertility for a year. Then there was a matchmaking lottery system that would pair couples together for a year.
They tried to end this celebration as Christianity and Catholicism started gaining political power. When Pope Gelasius came to power, he invented a new holiday to celebrate St. Valentine on February 14th and replace Lupercalia. However, there are twelve St. Valentines throughout the history of the Catholic Church, and it is unclear which one the holiday is named after. There are two possible candidates: St. Valentine of Rome and St. Valentine of Terni. Unfortunately, the evidence is blurry. Both candidates are martyrs. St. Valentine of Rome was jailed for giving aid to other persecuted Christians. He befriended his jailor's daughter after healing her of her blindness. The last letter he wrote to her ended with "your Valentine." When marriage was outlawed for soldiers, St. Valentine of Terni would secretly marry couples. He was also executed for it. Another theory is that the two St. Valentines were the same person.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1349 – 1400) was the poet who was the first person to associate Valentine's Day with romantic love. He wrote a poem called "Parliament of Foules," about a bird choosing its mate from multiple suitors. Out of the almost 700 lines in the poem, one sentence references Valentine's Day. The passage reads, "For this was on St. Valentine's Day when every bride cometh there to choose his mate." This poem talks about choosing a love match during a period when political alliances through marriage were common among the aristocracy.
The first Valentine's Day card was believed to be sent by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, in 1415. He wrote a Valentine's Day poem to his wife from his jail cell while he was a prisoner of war in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt. The first few lines read, "Je suis desja d'amour tanne, Ma tres doulce Valentinée." (I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine). It was a very melancholy message due to his circumstances. Tragically, his wife passed away before he was released from prison.
Sending sweet letters to a loved one on Valentine's Day became more common. By the late 18th century, Europeans began to decorate these letters with lace, embossing, and illustrations creating this three-dimensional effect. Around this time, England began to print commercial Valentines by machine. The customer can then take those Valentines and choose verses to suit their situation. Some even added more embellishments to their handcrafted Valentines.
Who manufactured the first Valentine's Day Cards?
Regarding mass-producing Valentines, two conflicting yet intersecting stories originate in Grafton and Worcester, MA. Since there is little historical evidence about who mass-produced Valentine's Day Cards first, we can only guess based on each account. The ambiguity stems from the book "A History of Valentines" by Ruth Webb Lee. In her 1952 book, she solely credits Esther Howland as the person who first mass-produced Valentines.
Esther Howland was known as the "Mother of American Valentines." She was born in 1828 in Worcester, MA, to her parents, Southworth and Esther Howland. In 1847, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College and was an aspiring entrepreneur. She received a beautiful English Valentine during the same year and was instantly fascinated by it. She devised an idea to form a business to sell these types of Valentines in America.
Her father owned an S.A. Howland & Sons store that sold books and stationery. Esther asked him for supplies such as thick paper, lace, illustrations, etc., to make a few prototype Valentine's Day cards. She created these three-dimensional cards using lace, embossed envelopes, and pictures to make a collage. Inside, she would paste a small piece of paper with a four-line verse as the message. She gave her brother about a dozen prototype Valentines and then convinced him to try to sell the Valentines during his business travels around Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. She thought she would only get a total of between $100 and $200 orders. Her brother brought back $5,000 worth of orders to her surprise.
Her new business was an instant success, and she decided to expand. She took over the third floor of her home and started off hiring four ladies who recently graduated with her. She was said to pay her employees well above average. They started an assembly line to mass produce English-inspired Valentines. Each woman would have a specific section to work on and then pass it to the next lady to add another section. In the end, there was a complete Valentine which would be around 75 cents each. Some of her more intricate cards cost about $35 during that time. When Esther sold off her business in 1881, she made $100,000 per year. That equates to just under $3,000,000 today!
While Esther is almost solely credited with starting the first company that mass-produced Valentines, there is a different account. In 1809, Jotham Taft was born in Grafton, Ma. Like Southworth Howland, he also sold stationery. He and his wife vacationed in Germany in 1839 and brought back Valentine's cards. Taft started mass-producing Valentine's Day cards around 1840 through the New England Village Company. He is known as the "Father of American Valentines."
What is interesting is the fact that Esther and Jotham knew each other. Both of their families were friends and he may have been the one to mail her the English Valentine back in 1847. He is also believed to have been her mentor and taught her how to make Valentines. Jotham's son Edward went into business with Esther Howland in 1879. Together they formed the New England Valentine Company.
Meanwhile, in Worcester, Sumner Whitney and his wife opened a stationery store in 1858 and sold their Valentine's Day cards. When Sumner died in 1861, his younger brothers Edward and George Whitney took over the business. They named it "Whitney Valentine Company. It is believed that George worked for Esther Howland, making Valentines before then. If it wasn't for their maker's stamps, Esther Howland and George Whitney's Valentine's cards would be indistinguishable.
Edward left Whitney Valentine Company in 1868. Now the sole owner, George continued a highly successful business and decided to expand. In 1881, he bought out 10 Valentine's card companies, including New England Valentine Company. He now sold Victorian Valentines and cards for holidays such as Christmas and New Year's. His Valentine's Day cards slowly evolved into what we see as modern-day greeting cards. Valentine's cards were now made using machinery rather than an assembly line. It was now more cost-effective to forgo the intricate 3-D effect of Victorian Valentines. Upon his death in 1915, his son Warren took over the company. Whitney's son, also named George," eventually took over until the company's demise during WWII. Unfortunately, with paper shortages and the rise of other greeting card businesses, Whitney Valentine Company could no longer sustain itself and liquidated.
The business of greeting cards is still thriving today, with aisles of cards displayed at the local grocery store. With today's technology, greeting cards can even be sent by email. The craft of mass-produced handmade greeting cards may no longer exist, but the sentiment is the same. These Valentine's day cards are a gift to let someone know you are thinking of them.
By: Nadia Dillion, Outreach Coordinator & Preservationist at The Barnes Museum
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