Our Ancestors’ Valentine’s Day Cards

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega celebrates Valentine’s Day by researching some of our ancestors’ valentine cards. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

I’ve always loved old Valentine’s Day cards. Although I like all old cards, including very early ones, mid- to late-20th century Valentine’s Day cards are some of my favorites. I wish I could find one of the large books of pages of valentines you could cut out and give to your teacher and fellow classmates, like they had when I was a kid. I remember feeling bad that my parents wouldn’t buy the pre-cut valentines (they cost more), but today I would love to have one of those large books with their pages and pages of different Valentine’s Day greetings.

Photo: Valentine’s Day card from 1947
Photo: Valentine’s Day card from 1947. Credit: the Houston County, Tennessee, Archives.

Sending valentine wishes actually dates back to the 18th century. It was in the 20th century that handmade sentiments or letters were replaced by printed cards that could be purchased.*

Photo: Valentine’s Day card from 1947
Photo: Valentine’s Day card from 1947. Credit: the Houston County, Tennessee, Archives.

Some of the earliest homemade valentines I have seen were in connection with some research I conducted on a 19th century English woman. Her friend Elizabeth Cobbold, who was an author, would create elaborate silhouette cut-outs complete with a poem and give them to her friends during her Valentine’s Day parties.**

Some of these can be viewed on the Flickr account for Johns Hopkins University Library Special Collections (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/elizabethcobbold).

Photo: handmade Valentine Day’s Card, c. 1820
Photo: handmade Valentine Day’s Card, c. 1820. Courtesy of Special Collections of The Johns Hopkins University.

Valentines in the Newspaper

As I look through GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, there are numerous examples of ways that our ancestors may have procured valentines. This 1852 advertisement proclaims that they have: “20,000 Comic and Sentimental Valentines: Valentine Writers: Family Note Paper: Valentine Cards…” There’s no doubt they took valentine greetings seriously because a P.S. to that advertisement states: “At my store there will be every convenience furnished for directing and mailing Valentines – furnished gratuitously. There will also be a trust worthy carrier on hand to convey Valentines to any part of the city.”

An ad for Valentine's Day cards, American and Commercial Daily Advertiser newspaper advertisement 3 February 1852
American and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland), 3 February 1852, page 3

The 20th century provided not only advertisements for Valentine’s Day cards, but also a range of prices and types described in advertisements – like this 1903 newspaper advertisement for valentines that are lace or embossed “in the form of baskets, flowers, butterflies, pretty children’s faces, hearts…” Valentine’s Day cards of this era would have cost your ancestor anywhere from 1 cent to $1.50 – which would be almost $40 today!

An ad for Valentine's Day cards, Cincinnati Post newspaper advertisement 4 February 1903
Cincinnati Post (Cincinnati, Ohio), 4 February 1903, page 10

It’s not surprising that printed Valentine’s Day cards and the images they depict change with the times. Popular culture is fleeting and Valentine’s Day cards often depict what is in style, including media characters and quotes. These 1940s valentines given to a teacher by her students include a woman in a military-style uniform that might be reminiscent of the WACs or WAVES (Women’s Army Corp and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and other women who went to war during this time.

Photo: Valentine’s Day card from 1947
Photo: Valentine’s Day card from 1947. Credit: the Houston County, Tennessee, Archives.

This 1982 newspaper article focusing on the changes in Valentine’s Day cards points out that what was popular that year included the characters Strawberry Shortcake, Holly Hobby and Ziggy, as well as cats and bears. In addition, “the company’s designers anticipated the increasing public interest in Americana, from Early American primitive art to nineteenth-century quilts. Numerous Valentine offerings incorporate these design motifs. A twist on this concept features antique teddy bears in human situations.”

An article about Valentine's Day cards, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 13 February 1982
Chicago Metro News (Chicago, Illinois), 13 February 1982, page 14

While I remember Valentine ’s Day cards decorated with Holly Hobby and animal characters, my guess is that my 10-year-old nephew might be passing out cards with more contemporary themes from movies like Star Wars and Transformers.

Do you have a favorite Valentine’s Day memory? Have you saved a card from years gone by? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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* “History of Valentine’s Day,” History (http://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day: accessed 8 February 2018).
** “V is for Valentines,” Suffolk Record Office (https://www.suffolkarchives.co.uk/places/a-z-of-suffolk/v-is-for-valentines/: accessed 8 February 2018).

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