Victorian Valentine Greetings

It’s almost time again – the time that Hallmark refers to as “the most happiest time of the the year-“ or at least, the most profitable. You guessed it – Valentine’s Day, and time to select just the right card for your special someone.

Valentine’s Day can be traced back to the Christian martyrs (St. Valentine), to Chaucer and to Shakespeare, but it is the Victorians that made it the holiday we all celebrate today. In 1840, Britain passed the Uniform Penny Postage bill enabling patrons to mail a simple Valentine for one penny, instead of the previous exorbitant amount of over one shilling, an average day’s wage for many. Mass produced Valentine’s went on sale and were sent out in such great numbers that postmen were given a special allowance for refreshments to help them get through the two to three days of huge deliveries before February 14. In the first year, 400,000 cards were mailed out throughout the country.

Many preferred to make their own cards rather than purchase a ready-made valentine, and these were usually embellished with lace, ribbons, gold and silver foil appliqués, silk flowers, bits of mirrors and even seashells. They most often contained such trite sentiments as “Be Mine” or “Constant and True.” A common theme for the cards featured churches and church spires, indicating fidelity and honorable intentions.

The mother of the American valentine was Esther Howland ( 1828-1904). She received a very ornate Valentine from a European associate of her father when she was 19 years old. These imported cards were rather expensive and not available to the average American. It was her wish to change that. By the mid 1850s, her cards were so popular that the New York Times published a criticism of the practice calling it “cheap and indecent.” This did not deter the amorous though, especially after 1865 when the Civil War ended. With bitter memories of the war fading, many were eager to think of more pleasant things. Esther, however, could not produce her cards on an increasingly large scale.

This opened the door for Hallmark, the oldest and largest manufacturer of greeting cards in the US. It had a very inauspicious beginning as it came about from two shoeboxes of postcards. Joyce Clyde Hall and his older brothers, William and Rollie, began the Norfolk Post Card Company in 1907, initially located in Norfolk, Nebraska, in a bookstore where they worked. The next year, Rollie bought out the store’s non-family business partner and it became “Hall Brothers”, doing business as the Hall Book Store. The postcard business soon outgrew the store’s resources, and Joyce moved it to Kansas City in 1910. By 1912, the postcard craze had faded and the company had begun selling “Christmas letters” and greeting cards. In 1928, the company introduced the brand name Hallmark, after the hallmark symbol used by goldsmiths in London in the 14th century. They began printing the name on the back of every card, and the rest is history, as they say.

Whether you patronize Hallmark or exercise your own creative talents, don’t forget to pay homage to our Victorian ancestors by sending someone your care about a special greeting. They’ll love you for it!