Americans have long been in love with Valentine’s Day cards

Published:

Sunday, 2/10/2013 11:37am

Is Valentine’s Day a mere ‘Hallmark Holiday’? Something clever dreamed up by modern marketers looking for a post-December bottom line boost?

Not at all! Americans have long been hooked on love, and part of the devotion to that most complex, yet simple emotion means that we have long been avid creators and recipients of tenderly worded (and sometimes, not so tenderly worded) Valentine’s Day cards.

In the pre-Papyrus, pre-JibJab colonial era and early 19th century, cards and tokens of affection in honor of Valentine’s Day were largely handmade and hand-delivered.

But by the Victorian age, Americans had access to a wide variety of heart-tugging material that was both machine and handmade and thus, the commercialization of Valentine’s Day began.

At a loss for words in the hoop skirt and top hat days? Not a problem. Even before the dawn of the Internet, Americans had access to books called Valentine’s manuals, or ‘writers,’ that would offer advice on what types of poems or sentiments to include in their card. The lovelorn and love-besotted alike could purchase manuals, the materials for making cards, and even fully completed cards at a local stationery store, which were quite common back then. In 1853, an ad in the Peekskill Republican for O.F. Fuller’s store asserted:  “…his assortment cannot be surpassed either as to beauty or originality of design…(he sells) valentine’s writers, lace paper, note paper, envelopes etc. etc.”

In 1854 in the same newspaper, another stationery store saw fit to bill itself “Cupid’s Headquarters.”

Magazines from the time period, such as Godey’s Lady’s Magazine and Harper’s, also promoted the holiday. They printed stories, poems, and even comics that both fed the fire of love and poked fun at its pursuit.

Historic Hudson Valley’s very own ‘Miss Van Cortlandt’ received a lovely Valentine sometime in the 1850s or perhaps early 1840s. This carefully constructed card was either homemade or purchased as a complete card from a shop. It is made with beautifully embossed paper whose design elements are carefully rendered in blue ink. There is a hand-painted, winsome dancing girl floating on a cloud of silk chiffon. A small paper scrap poem pasted on the front of the note says it all.

Sappy and silly love stories, though, were not the only kind told through early American Valentines. Another type of card was the comic or “Vinegar Valentine” that feel quite contemporary with their sarcastic tone and cutting remarks. While today we might interpret them as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, folks in the 19th century and early 20th century took these cards quite seriously, indeed. They were usually sent anonymously and sometimes postmasters actually went so far as to confiscate them because they were so venomous.

In 1844, a columnist in the Peekskill Republican offered these thoughts on Valentine’s Day for committed lovers. He told them they are “…bound by the laws of custom and usages of society to dispatch a fragrant and flowery billet-doux (sweet note) to the one who is the object of his or her most ardent affection.”

He went on to state that if you are not attached “Go immediately and fall in love with somebody, and if you break your heart in the fall, it is no matter, but be careful not to break your neck.”

And finally, check out this CBS News video about a person whose 10,000-strong collection begs the question: Roses are red, violets are blue, how many Valentines are enough for you?

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