America's Valentine

02.13.2021
Blog

By Alexandra Nesci, Department of Education and Visitor Services Intern

St. Valentine's Day has been acknowledged as a minor holiday to Christians in the Americas since the arrival of Christopher Columbus (and Christianity) in 1492. However, it was not popularized in the United States until the 1840s. It is believed that in the late 3rd century (c. 269), the Christian martyr Valentine was executed in Rome on February 14th. Valentine was canonized after his death, and since the late 400s February 14 has been recognized as the Feast of St. Valentine. The story of his miracles has changed over the years, but the most popular and best known in the United States tells of St. Valentine healing his Roman jailor’s daughter who was blind. Upon the day of his execution, he wrote her a letter of love, reportedly signed “Your Valentine”.

The transformation of St. Valentine’s Day in the United States from a minor saint’s observance to the modern celebration of romance through elaborate cards and gifts happened because of two main factors: 1) American interest in British fashion and culture, and 2) a desire to profit off the sale of valentines. The Americans took cultural inspiration from the British, who were circulating approximately 200,000 valentines a year in the 1820s. That number increased to approximately 400,000 valentines each year throughout the 1840s. These charming tokens of affection made their way across the Atlantic to a few lucky American recipients every February, and American interest grew immensely. Paper and stationery sellers quickly realized that they could capitalize on this cultural exchange and a new American industry was born.

Left: Image of 19th century valentine card. The red paper is embellished with gold embossing and white lace styling. In the center, an illustration of young man and young woman who lean closely together. Printed across the top, the word “Affection.”  Right: Image of 19th century valentine card. The red paper is embellished with gold embossing and white lace styling. In the center, an illustration of the profile of a boy who is flanked by smaller illustrations of a boy feeding a goat (left) and a young soldier (right). Printed across the top, the words “Sincerely Yours.”
Valentines made by Esther Howland's New England Valentine Company. 

Esther Howland (1828-1904) is acknowledged as the mother of the American valentine. At age 19, Esther received an elaborate European valentine from a friend; she loved the card and was inspired to bring the custom to the United States. Fortunately for her, she was in a great position to start her own card business as her father was the owner of the large book and stationery store S.A. Howland and Sons. He was perfectly willing to help his daughter in her new business venture. Using decorative materials imported from New York and Europe, Esther designed and assembled a few sample valentines to be sent off with her brother on a sales trip for the family business. Her messages were decorated with images of rosy-cheeked lovers as well as paper specially cut to replicate delicate lace and flowers. She only expected a few hundred dollars' worth of orders and was astounded when her brother returned with the news that the orders placed valued nearly $5,000. Esther quickly set to work, first employing friends and family to assemble the valentines, and then expanded to hiring local women. Esther’s employees worked both in assembly lines and from their homes, constructing the folded cards from packages of supplies provided by Esther, and returning them once completed for sale. She maintained her business—the New England Valentine Company—until it was sold to George Whitney in 1880, providing Esther the time to care for her ailing father.

Black and white photographic print of V-mail facsimile with an illustration of a heart surrounding a soldier and an inset of a soldier advancing with a gun. Text reads: “Thinking of MY VALENTINE.”
V-mail valentine from the Second World War.

Esther Howland’s New England Valentine Company was the first major commercial producer of valentines in the United States, but it certainly wasn’t the last. By 1848, there were at least eleven commercial producers of valentines in the country, and more were to come. Hallmark, perhaps the most successful of American valentine companies, was founded by another young entrepreneur: 18-year-old Joyce Clyde Hall in Nebraska in 1910. Originally known as Hall Brothers, Joyce began his career selling postcards. Joyce’s small operation was destroyed by a fire in 1911, but he quickly reconfigured his business to start anew. He shifted his business’s focus from postcards to holiday cards, which rapidly became Hall Brother’s biggest sellers, particularly for Christmas and Valentine's Day. Drawing from the romantic imagery popularized by Esther Howland in the 19th century, Hall Brothers captured the market for valentines and experienced great success. By the time Hall Brothers had been renamed Hallmark in 1954, they had grown from simple postcards to more elaborate cards, envelopes, wrapping paper, and even television. 

Valentine’s Day has come a long way in the United States from an uncelebrated saint’s day to the massively popular holiday it is today. According to the Greeting Card Association, approximately 145 million valentines were exchanged in the United States in 2019. Notably, this statistic does not account for the American tradition of students exchanging valentines in the classroom. Today, valentines come in many different forms, from traditional cards like Esther Howland’s romantic European-inspired designs to singing cards, miniature cards, oversized cards, cards decorated with popular cartoon characters, and many unique homemade cards. The legacy of Valentine’s Day in the United States is a story of cultural transformation and exchange between the United States and Europe in the mid-19th century. It is also the story of a new generation of American entrepreneurs who were determined to make their fortune in the United States with artistry.


Alexandra Nesci is an intern for the Department of Education and Visitor Services at the National Postal Museum. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, where she received her BA in both American history and Spanish language.


Sources:

Greeting Card Association. “Facts and Stats 2019”. greetingcard.org. 2019. Accessed 2021.
greetingcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Greeting-Card-Facts-09.25.19.pdf

Hallmark Co. History. corporate.hallmark.com. Accessed 2021.
corporate.hallmark.com/about/hallmark-cards-company/history/

Mount Holyoke College. Esther Howland. South Hadley, MA. Accessed 2021.
mtholyoke.edu/175/gallery/esther-howland

Summers, Keyonna. The Hidden History of Valentine’s Day. 2020. Accessed 2021. 
unlv.edu/news/release/hidden-history-valentines-day

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine's Day, 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 28, no. 4, 1993, pp. 209–245. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/1181508. Accessed 2020.

Terrell, Ellen. “Esther Howland and the Business of Love”. loc.gov. Library of Congress. 2016. Accessed 2020.

Image Sources:

Howland, Esther. Valentine card, "Sincerely Yours". Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections. c.1875. Accessed 2021.
compass.fivecolleges.edu/object/mtholyoke:16140
Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections

Howland, Esther. Valentine card, "Affection". Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections. c.1875. Accessed 2021.
compass.fivecolleges.edu/object/mtholyoke:16139
Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections

NPM’s Object Image Sources:

National Postal Museum. “Valentine sent in 10c Washington cover, Object #: 2003.2019.2.2”. Accessed 2021.

National Postal Museum. “10c Washington Valentine cover, Object #: 2003.2019.2.1”. Accessed 2021.

National Postal Museum. “Vmail facsimile letter, Object #: 0.260305.50.17.2”. Accessed 2021.