Valentine’s Day has an extensive history of Roman myth, pagan holiday, sainthood, and literature. A rather short version of its extensive history can be found here. In America, Esther Howland is nicknamed the “Mother of the American Valentine” and credited with creating the first mass market printed Valentines in the United States. Esther’s father owned the largest stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1849, Esther designed a line of Valentine’s Day cards after being inspired by a card 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. Because Howland’s Valentines used papers and illustrations imported from Europe with the help of her father’s stationery business, her cards were very different than other Valentines already on the U.S. market at the time.
At the peak of her success, Howland was selling as much as $100,000 per year in Valentine’s cards with distribution all across the country. Eventually, 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. In 1881, New England Valentine Company was purchased from Esther Howland by George Whitney, who owned a competing Valentine company, and Howland retired from entrepreneurship to become a caregiver for her ailing father.
Ms. Howland is who we owe our thanks to when it comes to a pivotal movement in Valentine’s Day cards. Since the days of her female-led business empire, Valentine’s Day has forever been linked to card giving.
In the 20th century (and beyond), the name Hallmark has become synonymous with Valentines for many Americans. Hallmark – or Hall Bros. as it was then called – sold its first Valentine’s Day cards in 1913. Those initial postcard designs were purchased from another company, and in 1916 the company began producing its own Valentine’s Day card designs.
Over the course of the 20th century, with the help of Hallmark and companies that sell products like chocolate and flowers, Valentine’s Day became more and more commercialized. A hundred years after the death of Queen Victoria, her era’s coy tradition of anonymously delivering words of affection has become a holiday steeped in risqué cards and lingerie. But, the holiday has also expanded to include family members and friends, with school children preparing and giving Valentine’s Day cards in classroom exchanges.
Though little written history exists on the topic, we all know and remember well, the era of making, giving, and receiving Valentine’s Day cards in the classroom. Trading cards in the classroom goes as far back as the early 1900s, even perhaps as far back as the late 19th century and the first mass-produced cards.
Gifting sweet sentiments to classmates certainly became much easier when commercial Valentine’s Day cards became widely and easily accessible, but just as it is today, creating handmade cards was also popular in the classroom.
Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, Valentine’s Day is the second most popular holiday for Americans to send greeting cards. The U.S. trade association counts an estimated 145 million cards sold each year for the holiday, compared to 1.6 billion cards for the first place winner: Christmas. (Adding in classroom Valentine packs pushes the number of Valentines sold to over a billion each year – impressive, but still not beating out Christmas.) Of course, those numbers don’t include handmade valentines – everything from preschool children’s scribbled crayon hearts to the mixed media masterpieces of avid paper crafters.
Whether you partake in celebrating Valentine’s Day, or just feel like Valentine’s is another “Hallmark” holiday, it is still fun to look back at some history behind the holiday. Take a little time to reminisce about penning your own thoughtful card when you were in grade school and admired that little red head girl, or when you were stationed overseas and missed your beau more than you ever could have imagined.
P.S. Only 1 week left until Valentine’s Day.