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Valentines Cards of the 19th and 20th Century

By Pamela Miller

Valentine's Day has its roots in a number of traditions, including the Roman and the Christian. At the same period of the year, early spring, the Romans celebrated the festival of the Lupercalia, a fertility rite. In their efforts to suppress pagan rituals, early Christians substituted Saints' days for Roman celebrations, and as St. Valentine was martyred on the eve of the Lupercalia, his name became associated with a spring festival celebrating the choosing of a mate. Later poetic references allude to this day as the one on which birds choose their mates.

A variety of valentines

Early European courtship rituals associated with Valentine's Day included the exchange of tokens of love, such as gloves, stockings, carvings and later handwritten sheets of suitably decorated paper bearing poetic messages.

By the end of the 18th century in England and France, plain writing paper had been replaced by elaborately printed and engraved sheets. In England, the first printed valentine was published in 1797. Appropriately decorated double-page writing sheets were printed specially for Valentine's Day.

At around the same time, embossed paper and cards became popular. The embossing process involved pressing the paper against an engraved die. The British papermaker Joseph Addenbrooke discovered by chance that by filing off the raised part of the embossed area he could produce a lacy effect. English lace-paper soon achieved world renown. During the Victorian era, no embellishment was considered too ornate: simple designs on a single sheet of paper had evolved into creations including lace, silk, velvet, feathers and shells. The variety was endless.

Initially, envelopes were not widely used as they added extra weight to the postage. Instead, the sheets were simply folded and the name and address were inscribed on the outer surface. The introduction of cheaper postal rates in the 1840s led to a marked increase in correspondence by mail. Envelopes were introduced, and Valentine's Day became more popular than ever.

A thriving industry

Valentines were not only sent by lovers: they were also exchanged between friends, relations, and sometimes even enemies (as witness, the "comic" valentines on view). The sale of valentines was a lucrative business for printers and engravers, and innovation was the key to success. By the 1870s some publishers had hundreds of workers engaged in their production. Valentines were apparently not actually published in Canada until the end of the 19th century, but they were advertised for sale in newspapers by local stationers.

Valentines were available in every price range and could cost anywhere from a few pennies to hundreds of dollars. By the 1860s, with the increasing popularity of the Christmas card (about the size of a playing card) and the improvement of inexpensive colour printing, the taste for elaborate valentines began to diminish. During the 1880s taste in valentines became much simpler.

Publishers like Marcus Ward & Co. of Belfast and London started producing simpler chromolithographed valentine cards, illustrated by artists Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) and Walter Crane (1845-1915). Much of the printing was done in Germany for English and American publishers. The late-19th century craze for collecting picture postcards led to a new type of valentine - the valentine-postcard - a form in which German firms excelled.

Their popularity increased with the rise of literacy, the establishment of a uniform postal system, more sophisticated printing techniques and the availability of cheap paper. Although valentine cards became less popular in Europe after the First World War, they still flourished in the United States and Canada. Having virtually died out in many European countries, Valentine's Day is currently undergoing a revival.

Source: "From the McCord with Love" Exhibition Text, 1993

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