Valentine’s Day was a highlight of my elementary school life. There was the party, of course — someone’s mom showed up with heart-shaped sugar cookies and red, sickly-sweet punch, and we’d exchange foil-wrapped chocolates and conversation hearts with carefully selected messages. But that was just a prelude to my favorite part — the cards. Depending on the year, mine could be meticulously constructed of doilies, construction paper, and paste or store-bought cards featuring eager puppies or Raggedy Ann and Andy. But either way, I’d spend hours choosing just the right words and image for each recipient. While I knew that some kids were forced by their mothers to sit down and slap their signature on valentine after valentine, I still liked to believe that most of the cards’ messages weren’t random. Delivered by classmates to our glitter- and paint-encrusted “post boxes,” these missives gave us every opportunity to read between the lines and titter over our assumptions of what “Be Mine” really meant, especially when sent by the cutest boy in the class.
My lengthy Valentine’s Day preparations follow traditions dating back centuries. The very first Valentine’s Day message is in the holdings of the British Library and was written in 1415 by a prisoner in the Tower of London: Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife. Confessing one’s feelings in a valentine card didn’t take off in earnest until the mid-1700s, but by 1797 was so popular that a British publisher issued a “writer” — a book of sentimental verses that young men with writer’s block could copy onto a beloved’s card. The volume also contained suggested responses that ladies could use in return. These early valentine cards were handmade and costly. In addition, postage was so expensive that valentines were typically hand delivered.
That changed in the mid-1800s, when factory-produced Valentine’s Day cards appeared. In 1850 Esther Howland, known as the Mother of the American Valentine, started a factory employing female assembly line workers who constructed lace- and ribbon-bedecked valentines. During the U.S. Civil War, valentine cards with flaps that opened to reveal a soldier in his tent, dreaming of his beloved, were common. By the late 1800s, improvements in printing, the evolution of the paper industry, and “penny postage” made it possible to inexpensively send cards to friends and family members, as well as to one’s sweetheart. The intrigue level also increased, as valentines could be sent anonymously by post — some say this accounts for the increase in risqué verses that appeared around this time.
All was not love and lust in the valentine business, however. Cards meant to express the opinion of rejected suitors also showed up, some with cruel and even obscene verses. According to Antiques and Collecting Magazine, postmen were able to read these messages (inexpensive postage required envelope flaps be tucked in, but not sealed), and in the late 1890s the Chicago post office rejected 25,000 cards, saying they weren’t appropriate to be sent by mail.
That phase wasn’t enough to endanger the custom of sending valentine cards, however. Today, it’s estimated that more than a billion valentine cards are sent annually, making it second only to Christmas in the number of cards exchanged.
In the second half of the 20th century, marketers encouraged the giving of gifts, like roses and chocolates, alongside cards. But while chocolates melt and roses wither, a card can last for decades. When I come upon a card I’ve tucked away, especially one with a hand-written message, it’s like an oasis in my day — the moment my husband, my daughters, my parents, or a friend took to share their feelings can buoy my spirits months or even years later.
A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.