Valentine greetings have been popular since the Middle Ages, a time when prospective lovers said or sang their romantic verses. Written valentines began to appear after 1400. Paper valentines originated in the 1500s, being exchanged in Europe and being given in place of valentine gifts and oral or musical valentine greetings. They were particularly popular in England. The first written valentine (formerly known as “poetical or amorous addresses”) is traditionally attributed to the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. While confined in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt, the young Duke reportedly passed his time by writing romantic verses for his wife in France. Approximately sixty of the Duke’s poems remain and can be seen among the royal papers in the British Museum. They are credited with being the first modern day valentines.
By the Sixteenth Century, written valentines were commonplace and by the Seventeenth Century, it was a widespread tradition in England and other Western countries for friends and sweethearts to exchange gifts and notes on February 14. During the early 1700s, Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian poetical art known as the “language of flowers” to Europe and throughout the Eighteenth Century, 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 more popular the flower, the more traditions and meaning were associated with it. The red rose, for instance, believed to be the favored flower of Venus, Roman Goddess of Love, became universally accepted to represent romantic love. Thus, the custom of giving red roses on Valentine’s Day quickly gained popularity.
Some time after 1723, the popularity of valentine cards in America began to grow with the import from England of valentine “writers.” A “writer” was a booklet comprised of a vast array of verses and messages which could be copied onto gilt-edged paper or other type of decorative sheet. 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. Late Eighteenth Century and Early Nineteenth Century valentines were often religious in nature and it is possible that the “Sacred Heart” often depicted on these cards eventually became the “Valentine Heart” with the customarily accompanying Angel eventually becoming “Cupid.” It is believed that the earlier versions of these religious valentines may have been made by nuns who would cut-out the paper lace with scissors. It is thought the process probably took many days since the cards had every appearance of being machine-made.
One popular style of early American card from 1840 to approximately 1860 was the “Daguerreotype,” a photographic process using old-time tintype in the center of a card surrounded by an ornametal wreath. Another was the “Mirror Valentine,” which contained a small mirror placed in the center to reflect the face of the recipient. However, the sending of valentine greetings in America did not become a true tradition until around the time of the Civil War (1861-1865) when valentine cards often depicted sweethearts parting, or a tent with flaps that opened to reveal a soldier. These were known as “windows.” In peace time, the “window” would be a church door opening to reveal a bridge and groom. Another Civil War valentine novelty was for the card to have a place for the sender to include a lock of hair. By the early 1800s, valentines began to be assembled in factories. Such early manufactured valentines were rather simplistic, composed of black-and-white pictures painted by the factory workers. Fancy valentines comprised of real lace and ribbons were introduced in the mid-1800s. Paper lace began to be introduced to the cards later in the 1800s, These valentines also contained delicate and artistic messages with pictures of turtledoves, lovers’ knots in gold or silver, bows and arrow, Cupids and bleeding hearts.
During the Victorian Era and its printing advances, Valentine cards became even more popular and the modern postal service of the age implmented the “penny post,” which made it easier to mail written valentines. (Prior to that time, postage was so expensive that most cards were hand-delivered and usually left on doorsteps.) Known as “penny postcards” (because they were mailed with a one-penny postage stamp), these valentine greetings were very popular from around 1890 to 1917. During this time, it was also considered “proper” to collect and display collections of postcards and trade cards in the Victorian and Edwardian parlor. Friends and guests would be invited to sit for hours, leafing through albums while they visited. This custom gained so much popularity that photographers, studios, printers and business continually strived for new and exciting subjects to satisfy a public which was anxious for innovative items in order 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 frequently employed women to hand-tint and color the black-and-white images. Some of the best of these cards came from Germany…famous for its detailed and colorful lithography. Popular subjects included women, children, flowers and couples, posed and arranged in an effort to portray the idealized virtues of the Era. Indeed, it was in England that the first commercial-type valentine was produced on embossed paper, later perforated to make a lace-type design. 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 and underneath, a picture of a couple or a romantic message.
Although pre-Victorian valentines are virtually unavailable today, but cards have survived over a century due chiefly to the fact that they began to be mass-produced around 1850. However, the majority of early Victorian valentines were customarily made by hand from honeycombed tissue, watercolors, paper puffs, colored inks, embossed paper hearts and exquisite lace. These were truly beautifully-created small works of art, often adorned with silk or satin (in addition) to lace, flowers or feathers and even gold leaf. Such fragile honeycomb designs remained the vogue until around 1909. Some of the most unusual valentines were fashioned by lonely sailors during this time…unique cards sporting seashells of various sizes employed to create hearts, flowers and other designs, or to cover heart-shaped boxes. Sailors also sent what were known as “Busk Valentines,” rounded long sticks fashioned from ivory or wood, somewhat resembling a tongue depressor but approximately five time longer. Upon these sticks, the sailor would carve hearts and other loving designs. The “Busk Valentine” was worn by the sailor’s sweetheart inside her corset. It was not unusual for a manufactured valentine of this era to cost as much as a month’s earnings, particularly the “proposal valentines” which were very popular and might contain the depiction of a church or a ring. In keeping with Victorian etiquette, it was considered improper for a lady to send a valentine greeting to a man.
On many Victorian Parlor tables, a place of honor was reserved for the Bible, family album, post card album and a huge scrapbook. In the latter were lovely pasted advertising cards which were acquired by different members of the family. When members of the family went out to shop, they were given colorful trade cards with their purchases. At the local food store, many of these cards came packaged in tins of teas and coffees. Each member of the family would have been quite delighted to receive these free cards. The color cards were the most cherished. Lithography had just been introduced and any colorful bits of paper were treasured. As family members brought new cards home, everyone became excited. The family members began to go to many different stores to see if they had any cards and if they would look nice in their books.
Images of Santa Claus and other Holiday symbols were always welcome during the Christmas season. Advertisers during the Victorian period were no different than advertisers today. They wanted people to spend lots of money on their products for the Holidays. Cheerful images of Jolly Old St. Nick, Christmas trees, and happy children with toys were designed to promote the “giving spirit”. Christmas, followed by Easter, was the most popular holiday in which you will find trade cards
Although the commercial aspects of Christmas were greatly looked down upon from many of the church pulpits, merchants continued to promote Christmas. Toy stores, confectioners’ shops and German bakeries began to stay open late and to festoon their windows with red silk bunting and holly. Holiday shoppers could not resist the cakes, the smells of cinnamon kuchens and sweet almond paste. 1874 was the year of the first window displays with a Christmas theme at Macy’s. One window displayed an amphitheater of wax, rag, bisque and hand-painted porcelain dolls imported from Germany France, Austria, Switzerland and Bohemia. In another window, scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin were composed in a panorama with steam-driven movable parts. 1867 was the first year that Macy’s department store in New York City remained open until midnight on Christmas Eve. In 1880 Woolworths first sold manufactured Christmas tree ornaments, and they caught on very quickly.
Victorian Trade Cards were a popular way for advertisers to lure customers to purchase their products or to shop in their stores. Victorian Trade Cards featuring scenes of families celebrating Christmas give us a wonderful glimpse of what it must have been like in many Victorian homes during the Holiday season. If you look closely at many of the pictures, you will see Christmas trees lit by candles and covered with handmade decorations and fancy hand-blown glass balls. Some of the images show presents hanging from the tree branches. This was a common practice during the Victorian Era. Other cards show decorations inside the homes featuring fresh evergreens and berries.