Valentine's Cards

Old habits die hard, and as I walked down the Euston Road I couldn’t resist looking at the most recent batch of tart cards that had been dropped in the telephone boxes. Amongst the more predictable offerings I was rewarded with this pre-emptive and poetic piece:

Roses are red, violets are blue

St Valentine’s cuming and so might you!

Pam Ayres it is not; but this little card was a reminder that St Valentine’s Day has spawned a boom industry and everyone from supermarkets and restaurants to florists and off-licences, prostitutes and printers have cashed-in on the nation’s romantic – and sometimes licentious - streak.

Greetings cards are big business: with an annual estimated spend of one billion pounds in the UK alone the average Briton distributes 55 cards each year - including the annual Valentine’s card. But who was St Valentine and how did this fashion for sending and receiving anonymous romantic ephemera start?

Legend has it in 276 AD a Roman priest called Valentinus would befriend young couples and encourage them to marry; this frustrated the Emperor, Claudius II, who felt married soldiers were less committed to fight than their bachelor counterparts. Claudius ordered Valentinus to either cease matchmaking or risk beheading: Valentinus chose death. Whilst languishing in jail the unfortunate priest made friends with the daughter of his jailer and on the eve of his execution wrote a note to the girl which he simply signed, ‘Your Valentine’: and that - if legend is to be believed - was the world’s very first Valentine! 

Ever since lovers through the centuries and across continents have exchanged Valentine’s greetings. Initially the greetings were merely letters, poems or prayers decorated by unskilled but loving hands. Tender, charming, often primitive pieces of rudimentary ephemera made by candlelight using crude paper and rustic equipment: it was to be a long time before Valentine cards as we known them appeared.

But Valentine’s Day was never just the preserve of the simple artisan; through the ages the festival has captured the imagination of all levels of society. In 1420 King Henry V commissioned John Lydgate to compose a Valentine greeting for his Queen Consort, Catherine de Valois. The tradition of love letters, poetry and St Valentine’s Day continued through the Tudor line when, in 1537, King Henry VIII made St Valentine’s Day a national holiday in England.


In 16th century Europe the commercial production of personal love tokens was already underway.  Religious memorabilia depicting the Sacred Heart motif were tenderly created in convents across France, Germany, and Holland and sold to a willing flock. Given with love, these handmade devotionals were offered at Christmas and New Year, for births, deaths, communion, baptism, marriage, birthdays, and on Saint’s days - including Valentine’s Day. The precursors of the modern Valentine, their designs on parchment or vellum emulated the hand-lace of the period and included decorative edges, framed cartouche paintings of saints and sacred hearts all enhanced with flowers, bouquets and hearts.

Although sending Valentine letters, poems or prayers dates from the 15th century or earlier, the first mention of a decorative Valentine’s Day ‘card’ is in the writing of 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys who relates how: ‘this morning came up to my wife’s bedside … little Will Mercer to be her Valentine; and brought her name writ upon blue paper in gold letters done by himself very pretty; and we both were very pleased with it. But I am also this year my wife’s Valentine.’ (14 February 1667)

However it was to be at least another 100 years, in the late 18th early 19th centuries, before the tradition of sending romantic greetings really emerged. The practice gathered further momentum with the introduction of the uniform Penny Post in 1840 and by the 1870s the giving and receiving of anonymous valentine’s cards had become firmly established. 

Pivotal to the development of Valentine’s cards was the London firm of George Mark of Crane Court, Fleet Street whose processes of gilding and silvering, embossing and perforating and cutting-out formed the basis of Valentine card technology. Alongside George Crane was the reputable business of Dobbs, Kidd & Co noted for its abilities in blind embossing and perforating. Other 19th-century makers of valentine cards include H Dobbs & Co., the first firm to make delicate flower petals that could be lifted up to reveal an amorous message beneath; Joseph Addenbrook, renowned throughout the world for his beautiful decorative lace paper; and the fancy stationer Joseph Mansell, an engraver and printer who during the 1840s embossed paper so perfectly that his work resembled real cameos. 

Britain led the way with its production of ‘fancy stationery’ which was exported all over the world, particularly to America. But the manufacture of these exquisite and romantic cards often took place in austere, archaic, workshops where the labour was divided between the men who operated the printing machines and embossing and cutting-out presses and the girls who pasted and assembled the components. 

Gilding and silvering were applied over a moist varnish, metal lead was pressed on to the surface and then rubbed away with a cloth leaving the unvarnished areas clear. Relief and lace effects were made by heavy impressions from embossing dies and filigree cutting tools. Multiple layers, using lace-bordered padded silks were ‘sprung’ one above the other on paper hinges to produce three-dimensional displays with printed poems, engravings, artificial flowers, feathers, mirrored-glass forming a central motif. Many of the more elaborate constructions, which cost as much as five guineas, were supplied in presentation cartons. 

Whilst George Mark and Dobbs, Kidd & Co manufactured the components; others assembled them to form finished products. Most notable among the ‘makers-up’ was Eugene Rimmel of the Strand (lately of Kate Moss, ‘Get the London look’ fame) whose perfumed sachets impregnated with the scent of lavender and violet, were introduced into novelty valentines in the 1860s. They became all the rage adding a final touch of elegance and luxury to the greetings. The Rimmel workshops employed between 80-100 women. 

Post-card Valentines and die-cut open-out styles became very popular towards the end of the 19th century. Every theme was included: transportation motifs - cars, ships, trains, carriages, planes - or adorably charming children painted by leading artists of the period 

By World War I the production of Valentines largely ceased because of the demands of the war. During World War II the Valentine’s styles were very simple, and dominated by themes such as ‘For My Army Sweetheart’. 

Today, Valentine’s cards come in every shape and size, can be actual or virtual, personalised or mass-produced. They range from the inordinately expensive ‘hand-made’ cards (somebody’s stuck a bit of twig to the front and an extra nought on the price) to the awe inspiringly cheap Tesco basic card and everything in between. But whilst printed off-the-shelf cards remain popular these are now being given a run for their money by on-line versions. Surf the Internet and choose from a multitude of sites where you can select your card, have it personalised, printed, posted and delivered within 24 hours - all for just £2.99. Bargain! Alternatively, you can log-on and create an e-card Valentine in minutes with a personal message complete with photos, videos, music, and words, which can be e-mailed, bloged, or printed directly from your desk top. How romantic! Whilst I appreciate this is simply a 21st century incarnation of romantic love I do wonder if it was worth Valentinus becoming a martyr!

Vinegar Valentine’s

Not all Valentine’s cards – past or present – were of the sentimental, loving type. In sharp contrast there were comic Valentines: a crude and rude type of greeting known as the ‘vinegar valentine’. Originating with the Victorians, these crudely printed sheets with caricatures carried rhymes as basic and insulting as their printing. These cards were made on a cheap pulp paper and were poorly printed; they usually combined woodcut illustrations with typeset verse and were often hand-coloured in simple hues. Their vulgarity and viciousness exploited the basic sensibilities as tirelessly as their lace paper and perfume counterparts explored the more refined emotions. ‘Vinegar Valentines’ had extensive sales both in the UK and America. Even some of the major printers including Raphael Tuck, Edward Stern and the Illustrated Postcard & Novelty Co produced such cards, which remained popular well into the mid-1900s.

Some were hilariously funny and saucy; others were rather lewd and rude: but they didn’t amuse everyone. In the Records Room of the London General Post Office, there are letters from furious fathers complaining about having to pay postage (before 1840, when the uniform Penny Post was established) on offensive valentines sent to their plain spinster daughters. Other malicious cards were sent to settle old scores. The burlesque watercolours by Cynicus, a comic cartoon artist and a Folies Bergeres dancer who kept her secrets hidden behind a scarlet heart covering her risqué spot, were also popular.

Caroline Archer