Valentines are great examples of the creation of demand, and their first appearance coincides with the emergence and development of the greeting cards industry in the mid-nineteenth century. Pre-modern romantic expressions were personal and handmade, but from about 1840 on, an increasingly dizzying array of stock sentiments appeared on the market. Like all ephemera, they reflect lots of things about the time in which they were produced: print technology, fashions, aesthetics, language. Valentines of the past expressed social values, but also occasionally social criticism, as in the case of so-called “vinegar valentines” which were sent (I presume anonymously or with a strange sense of humor) to those for whom you did not have warm feelings.
The second half of the nineteenth century was a golden era for commercially-produced Valentine’s Day cards on both sides of the Atlantic, after Mt. Holyoke student Esther Howland received a British valentine and was inspired to start her own card business around 1847, eventually transforming her native Worcester, Massachusetts into “Valentine City”. My Valentine album starts off with some Howland-inspired creations, but then turns decidedly mean: targeting spurned lovers, vain women, greedy old maids, cold hearts, and suffragettes.
Valentine Images from Indiana University’s online exhibition “A Flowering of Affection: Victorian Valentine Cards at the Lilly Library” and the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.