3 Facts about Our Ancestors’ Valentine’s Day Cards

Introduction: In this article – to celebrate Valentine’s Day – Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to learn about our ancestors’ valentines. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Today Valentine’s Day is often thought of as a “greeting card holiday” – but in reality, our ancestors celebrated the day of love in much the same way that we do today, including sending cards. Historical newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, provide some interesting insights into the popularity of that special day and our ancestors’ Valentine’s Day cards.

Photo: this Valentine’s Day greeting was published in the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 8 February 1866
Photo: this Valentine’s Day greeting was published in the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 8 February 1866, although not in this exact form.

#1: Our Ancestors Bought Cards

Valentine’s greetings have been exchanged in Great Britain since at least the middle of the 18th century and printed cards were exchanged starting in 1900. Americans were selling mass-produced valentines by 1849. (1) Newspaper advertisements provide a glimpse into what types of cards were available for purchase.

An 1856 newspaper advertisement for a bookseller announces:

“A large assortment of VALENTINES, Rich, Rare and Beautiful. Also – Comic Valentines, in endless variety.”

An ad for Valentine's Day, Daily Democratic State Journal newspaper advertisement 24 January 1856
Daily Democratic State Journal (Sacramento, California), 24 January 1856, page 3

One thing I love about searching for newspaper advertisements for Valentine’s Day cards is that unlike today, where you may find a store flyer with some images of what the cards look like, generations ago the cards’ descriptions let the potential customer know why they needed to purchase their cards at a specific store. Such is the case for this 1882 newspaper ad for this bookseller:

“The valentines of the present season surpass all previous years in variety, beauty and artistic designs. Mr. Judd, the bookseller, has the best selected stock of valentines, therefore his establishment is the proper place to look for your supplies in this line.”

An ad for Valentine's Day, New Haven Register newspaper advertisement 11 February 1882
New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 11 February 1882, page 4

If only those early newspapers had photos of those Valentine’s Day cards!

#2: Valentine’s Day Cards Weren’t Always Nice

Now it would seem that our ancestors’ valentines were not always so loving – and in fact the holiday was an excuse for some Victorians to tell people what they really thought about them. This 1860 newspaper article comments that “indecent letters” were sent to “respectable young ladies” in New York. The newspaper even calls for abolishing the custom of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.

An article about Valentine's Day, Columbian Register newspaper article 10 March 1860
Columbian Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 10 March 1860, page 1

Three years later another newspaper remarked that the day of “tender love tokens and marks of delicate attention” is now marked by “rude and vulgar attempts at wit and the lowest exchange of hideous caricatures.”

An article about Valentine's Day, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 13 February 1863
Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 13 February 1863, page 3

So, what was going on? What type of valentine was so awful that people were ready to scrap the whole day? These newspaper articles are most likely referring to “vinegar valentines” which were sarcastic and even mean-spirted cards that you could send to someone to make fun of them, for everything from their marital status (or lack of one), to the way they conducted business, or their downfalls, such as alcoholism. And in case you think that was something done only in the past, these cards were sold up until the 1970s. (2)

#3: Valentine’s Day was a Nightmare for the Post Office

As I read through historical newspapers, it becomes obvious that Valentine’s Day was very popular amongst our ancestors – which meant that someone had to deliver all of those love notes. A hint at how this holiday affected mail service can be found in this small mention in an 1854 newspaper reporting that, according to the Illustrated London News, 1,230,000 letters had recently passed through the London postal service – which surpassed even their Valentine’s Day volume. While today we think of holidays like Christmas as being busy for the postal service, it might be that Valentine’s Day was the big postal holiday of our ancestors’ time.

An article about Valentine's Day, California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences newspaper article 6 April 1854
California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences (Sacramento, California), 6 April 1854, page 106

This issue of the stress Valentine’s Day put on the postal system was also touched on three decades previously, as noted in this 1823 newspaper article which describes the day causing “delightful agitation” in London, where additional postal employees were hired to take care of the extra mail volume.

An article about Valentine's Day, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 25 March 1823
Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 25 March 1823, page 3

Newspaper reports of the increase in letters continue on throughout the years, including a notice that London carriers delivered 504,000 cards/letters – 110,000 above normal – for Valentine’s Day in 1864.

An article about Valentine's Day, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article 15 April 1864
San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 15 April 1864, page 1

With the post office busily trying to keep up, how would the Valentine’s Day procrastinator deliver his/her greetings? Even 100 years ago, there was a quicker way to get your letter to your beloved than the post office. This 1866 newspaper advertisement offers a retailer who will not only help you procure a card and write the verse that accompanies it – they had a Valentines Express to deliver cards via eight horses, leaving every hour to make deliveries.

An ad for Valentine's Day, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper advertisement 8 February 1866
San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 8 February 1866, page 3

Do you have your ancestors’ Valentine’s Day cards? What insight do they give about your ancestors’ love life? What Valentine’s Day greetings have you left behind for your descendants to discover?

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(1) “History of Valentine’s Day,” History (https://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-2: accessed 12 February 2019).
(2) “The Rude, Cruel, and Insulting ‘Vinegar Valentines’ of the Victorian Era,” Atlas Obscura (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/vinegar-valentines-victorian: accessed 12 February 2019).

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