From the Inspiration File – The Invention of the Valentine’s Day Card

Have you ever wondered how the tradition of giving Valentine’s Day cards began? Today’s Valentine’s Day cards are descendants of the very first Valentine’s Day cards from the 1830s.

Joseph Addenbrooke is often credited with discovering the lace or doily texture used on valentines

Before there was a market for Valentines cards, valentines were simply love letters, handwritten and exchanged. Due to high postage rates of the day, they were often left on doorsteps.

With the improvement of printing techniques in the 1800’s, printers were able to try new and more sophisticated methods of printing.

A fellow by the name of Joseph Addenbrooke, who owned a London stationery firm, discovered that he could create a lace texture on paper during the 1830s. This is often considered a major discovery in the evolution of the valentine.

With his discovery, lace paper became extremely popular and the technique of creating doilies spread among English stationers. In no time, they were competing to create the most elaborate doilies to mimic real lace as closely as possible.

A John Addenbrook valentine

Recipients of valentines would often judge the elaborateness of the cards to determine how much their suitors really felt about them. The more cupids or hearts on a card could be the difference between “like” and “love.” In fact, men could spend up to a month’s wages to purchase an elaborate valentine, especially when purchasing a “proposal valentine” that often depicted a church or a ring.

According to Victorian etiquette, it was improper for a woman to give a valentine to a man.

Over the remainder of the 19th Century, stationers experimented with other methods of printing and embellishing the lace-paper valentines.

Esther Howland, credited as being the Mother of the American Valentine

Around 1847, Esther Howland, a young woman from Massachusetts, received a valentine. It was a pretty typical English valentine, but she was inspired by it and set out to make her own. Lucky for her, her father was a stationer and soon enough she had an order of lace-paper and other materials to make her own cards. She did so well that she started her own business making valentines, The New England Valentine Company.

A card believed to have been designed by Esther Howland


Look at the amazing detail in these cards! No wonder they cost a month's wages. All made by hand.

Esther is often credited as the Mother of the American Valentine. After the cards she made sold so well (over five thousand orders!), Esther began the first assembly-line of valentines. And she wasn’t selling these things cheaply either. With such elaborate and delicate details in her cards, all made and assembled by hand (just like ours!), they would cost between $5 and $10 through the late 1800’s, some cards cost upward of $50! Put that in the inflation calculator and she was making over $100 per card in today’s dollars. It is estimated her business made her over $100,000 a year! 

Thanks to the early work and creativity of Addenbrooke and Howland, Valentine’s Day cards are second only to Christmas cards as the most popular seasonal cards to purchase.

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