Cupids shooting arrows, red and pink paper hearts and red roses bring to mind Valentine’s Day and Valentine’s Day cards, but Valentine’s Day actually has its origins in the Roman Empire. It is thought to be named for a priest named Valentine who was executed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II on Feb. 14, 270 AD. The emperor had banned marriages, and Valentine married people in secret. While in jail Valentine struck up a friendship with the jailer’s daughter, and shortly before his death he wrote her a message and signed it: “From your Valentine.”
Valentine greetings were popular in the Middle Ages when lovers said or sang their valentines. Written valentines began to appear in the 1400s. The oldest valentine letter in existence is from 1415 and was written by the Duke of Orleans from the Tower of London to his wife. He wrote: “Je suis desja d’amour tanne, Ma tres doulce Valentinee,” which roughly translates to: “I am already love sick, my very gentle Valentine.” In a letter from 1477, written by a Margery Brews to her fiancé, she describes him as her “right well-beloved Valentine.” Both letters are in the British Museum. William Shakespeare wrote about Valentine’s Day in Hamlet in 1603. Ophelia has the lines: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.”
By the middle of the 1700s, it was common for friends and lovers to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes on Valentine’s Day in Europe. Paper Valentines began to be made in factories in the early 1800s in England. These Valentines were black and white pictures painted by factory workers. Fancy Valentines made with real lace and ribbons were introduced in the mid-1800s. By the end of the 1800s, many Valentines were made entirely by machine.
The first Valentine cards mass produced in the United States were made by Esther Howland in the 1840s. She was an American printer and artist and has the title “Mother of the Valentine.” Howland made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.”
Through the late 1800s and early 1900s most Valentine cards were made in Europe. That changed when greeting card companies, Norcross and Hallmark, started making Valentine cards in the 1910s.
The Greeting Card Association, an industry trade group, says about 190 million Valentine’s Day cards are mailed each year in the United States. That figure does not included the hundreds of millions of cards schoolchildren exchange. Valentine cards are the most common Valentine’s Day gift, and 52% of all people send at least one card every year. Today you can find Valentine’s Day cards for lovers, parents, children, siblings, friends, teachers, and even pets. Hallmark alone offers over 850 different Valentine’s Day cards.
Come join us at Fort Caspar Museum on February 10 between 1 and 3 pm and learn how to make several different Valentines the old-fashioned way. These hand-made cards of paper, ribbon, and doilies are sure to be treasured. For more information, call the Museum at 307-235-8462.
A 3-D Valentine Card from the 1910s that is in the collection of Fort Caspar Museum. The cupid inside the mandolin is playing a mandolin. Written on the bridge is “Best Wishes.” Photograph courtesy of Fort Caspar Museum.