The history of sending valentine cards goes back at least as far as the early 1400s. A Frenchman – Charles, Duke of Orléans – is often given credit for creating the first valentine. After he was captured in battle and imprisoned in England, he wrote his wife letters containing romantic rhymed verses.
Eventually it became common for friends to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes on Feb. 14. Gradually, cards replaced gifts. In those days, valentines were handmade. The sender also had to make up his or her own message or poem to write on the card.
In the early 1800s, valentine cards – many were very elaborate with lace, seashells, or dried flowers – began to be manufactured. People didn't have to make their own anymore. But they still had to write a message inside.
The height of romantic valentines was 1840 to 1860. Three-dimensional and foldout valentine cards were very popular. Many were printed in Germany.
The first mass-produced valentines in the United States were made by Esther A. Howland, an American printer and artist of Worcester, Mass., in the 1840s. She recruited friends to help make them in her home, assembly-line-style.
There were many types of valentines a hundred or more years ago. Pinprick valentines were made by pricking tiny holes in paper to look like lace.
Cutout valentines were made by folding paper several times and cutting out a design with scissors.
Paper lace that resembled real lace was introduced in the mid-1800s, so it was no longer necessary to use cloth lace on valentines.
But not all valentines were meant to be pretty or romantic.
In 1858, a new type of card called a "vinegar valentine" or a "penny dreadful" became available. These were valentines with sarcastic humor that insulted the recipient. They usually were not signed, so the person receiving the card had to guess who sent it.
From 1870 through 1917, postcard valentines became popular in the US. That was because they needed only a 1-cent stamp for mailing. Not surprisingly, they were known as penny postcards. It was common to display a collection of postcards in an album in your parlor (a formal living room, often used for entertaining guests) for visitors to see.
Another trend was what were called "mechanical valentines." These had something on them that moved – a dog's eyes, for instance.
Cards illustrated by well-known artist Kate Greenaway were hits with the public in the late 1800s. During World War I, valentines had patriotic themes. In the 1930s, Walt Disney characters appeared on valentines for all ages to enjoy.
Funny valentines were a hit during the cold war. During the 1960s and '70s, cards often featured spaceships and popular characters such as Holly Hobbie.
Today many schoolchildren exchange valentines with their classmates. Often the cards are all put in a large box and then handed out by the teacher to each child. Adults also continue to send valentines – usually purchased – to their loved ones.
But with the popularity of the computer, many people now like to send e-mail valentines to family and friends. It's a new way of following an old custom.
Sources: www.howstuffworks.com/valentine.htm; www.emotionscards.com/museum/vals.html; www.history.com/minisites/valentine; www.americanantiquarian.org/Exhibitions/Valentines/origins.htm; www.xmission.com/~tssphoto/val_info.html; www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/valentines/valentine.html