What is considered the oldest surviving Valentine was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured by the English during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It was written to his wife Bonne of Armagnac (the French translates): I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine. Sadly, the Duke’s wife died before receiving the words of love of her imprisoned husband & today it resides in the British Library.
In the 1700s, something recognizable as a form of the modern greeting card began to be seen on Valentine’s Day. Pre-made cards weren’t available yet, so these early cards were handmade and usually delivered secretly by slipping them under a door. In 1797 a British publisher published a book for young lovers with hundreds of love poems and sentiments for lovers who could not think of any on their own. It was during that same year that printers had started to produce “mechanical valentines” which were valentines that had the same images & verses. A reduction rate in the postal service at that time helped thousands of people give out valentines in a less personal but simpler method of giving. During this Victorian era, the advent of affordable printing& postage didn’t just increase the numbers of cards sent each year, but it also increase the character of the cards. Around 1840 there was a shift from purely romantic cards to designs that were humorous, political, insulting or even racist. This saw the advent of “vinegar cards.” Vinegar cards were pre-printed cards that insulted the recipient’s physical traits, profession, lack of a marriage partner or other character traits. As many cards were given anonymously it brought about cards that were racy and obscene. Some of these became so obscene that several countries banned the practice of exchanging cards. For example, late in the 19th century, Chicago rejected some twenty-five thousand cards on the grounds that they were not fit to be carried through the postal service.
It was in the 18th century that the most familiar poem made its first appearance:
The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
In the mid 19th century the Valentines card traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. Cards rapidly gained popularity in America. Esther Howland, whose father owned the largest stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts, is nicknamed the “Mother of the American Valentine”. She is credited with creating the first mass market printed Valentines in the United States. In 1849, Howland designed a line of Cards after being inspired by one sent to her from England. Howland’s cards, featuring lacey cut-outs and intricate illustrations, were assembled in her home by a bevy of local ladies that she hired. Howland’s operation became known as the New England Valentine Company. The company remained a home-based operation until the mid 1870s when it moved production into its first factory. Her cards could be distinguished by a red H or an embossed N.E.V. CO. on them. In 1881 the company was purchased by George Whitney, who owned a competing Valentine company. Whitney’s company existed from 1866-1942. By 1888 it was one of the largest Valentine publishers in this country. His valentines could be distinguished by a small red W mark on the back.
Another company that appeared about 1917 was the George S. Carrington Company. The cards are marked with a logo in the shape of a tree outline containing a letter (usually A, H, C, or E) inside the tree. It is thought the letter code may have been an indication of the price. Wartime shortages led to the demise of the Whitney company. Carrington bought out Whitney in 1942, purchasing presses, stock and more. They continued on until 1955 when they closed down.
In the 20th century the name Hallmark became synonymous with Valentines. Hallmark (or Hall Bros. as it was originally called) produced its first Valentine card in 1913. This represented a key development in the commercialization of Valentine’s Day. Their original designs were purchased from another company, and in 1916 they began producing their own designs.