When Valentine’s cards made sense

Every February my kids’ teachers send me a long list of names: 50 classmates in total, in case my children (read “mom”) want to bring cards for their friends on Valentine’s Day.

As I can’t stand buying dollar-store Valentines, full of gender stereotypes, I insist on making them myself. And every February I ask myself “who the hell came up with the brilliant idea of giving away Valentine’s cards?”

Well, here is my answer:

According to legend, Saint Valentine of Rome was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. During his imprisonment, he healed the daughter of his jailer; and before his execution he wrote her a letter signed “Your

Valentine” as a farewell.

Boy in Red Jacket Holding Reins in Heart Frame, c.1913

Boy in Red Jacket Holding Reins in Heart Frame, c.1913

Cupid in Green Hat, "Love token", Postcard, c.1912

Cupid in Green Hat, “Love token”, Postcard, c.1912

In 18th-century England, the celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their feelings for each other by presenting gifts, and sending greeting cards known as “valentines” in honor of Saint Valentine of Rome’s last love letter.

Paper Valentines became so popular in England in the early 19th century that printers began producing a limited number of cards with sketches and verses, some of them quite sophisticated! “To you my soul’s affections move, devoutly warmly true. My life has been a task of love, one long long thought of you”, as the card in the image below reads. Fancy Valentines were made with gilt, real lace and ribbons, with paper lace introduced in the mid-19th century.

Valentine's Day greetings card. Victorian Era

Valentine’s Day greetings card. Victorian Era

In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced and sold shortly after 1847. The designs from the 19-century cards were kitsch, yet carefully elaborated, featuring endearing but sometimes gooey-looking cupids and cherubs.

 Cupid with Bow & Arrow in Heart Frame, Valentine Postcard, c.1912

Cupid with Bow & Arrow in Heart Frame, Valentine Postcard, c.1912

Since the 19th century, handwritten valentines have given way to mass-produced greeting cards. The target market has expanded to cover the kid’s audience, and now, where once kissing lovers stood, valentines feature licensed cartoons, such as a sponge in his underwear, which I personally find hideous.

If I have to choose between overly decorated and ostentatious cards or cartoons characters in their underwear, I will go for the rubicund cupid without a doubt, but that’s just me.

British Valentine card (colour litho), English School, (20th century)

British Valentine card (colour litho), English School, (20th century)

Valentine’s Day images for licensing

More images of Valentine’s Day cards from over a century ago can be found in the Bridgeman image archive. Contact uksales@bridgemanimages.com for image licensing and copyright enquiries

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