Medieval to Modern: The Evolution of Valentine’s Cards

Happy Valentine’s Day, and welcome to the inaugural post of Design Dives!

Valentine’s Day: what comes up for you when you think about this day? You’d be forgiven for dismissing it as a commercial holiday. Luckily, exchanging cards on February 14th goes beyond crass consumerism—it’s partaking in a 600-year-old tradition, joining the likes of medieval knights, Victorian romantics and pioneering North American businesswomen. The history of exchanging Valentine’s cards is an astonishingly rich survey of both changing aesthetics and notions of love.

Let’s dive in!

The oldest valentines (Medieval era)

Painting of Charles the Duke of Orleans held captive in London Tower (The British Library)

Saint Valentine’s Day celebrations started in 5th-century Rome when Pope Gelasius I wanted to Christianize a pagan fertility festival celebrated in mid-February. But they weren’t immediately associated with romantic love. 

It was only in 1382 that medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer popularized Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday in his poem “Parlement of Foules”:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery foul comyth there to chese his make.

(”For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day. When every bird cometh there to choose his mate”)

It’s in this medieval context that our oldest surviving valentine was created. Some 60 years after Chaucer’s poem, the French Duke Charles d’Orleans wrote his own poem:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée

(“I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine”)

Duke of Orleans Valentine's Day Poem, 15th C.

The Duke of Orleans Valentine’s Day poem, 15th C. (The British Library)

Like many stories from the past, this poem comes with misconceptions. 

Most online search results for “oldest valentine” claim that this poem was written by the Duke to his wife on February 14 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. As romantic as this would be, the British Library, which holds many of the Duke’s poetry collections, set the record straight in 2021 revealing that Charles wrote the poem years after his release from prison as part of his personal poetry manuscript (dates estimated between 1443-60). 

And the Valentine he addresses in his poem isn’t the Duke’s wife but rather another woman assigned to him as Valentine by lottery. 

It turns out there was a practice in medieval France where knights were assigned a married woman as their Valentine—a partner they were supposed to protect for the year. The Duke of Orleans is therefore likely writing to his assigned Valentine to tell her that he’s too tired to abide by the custom. As the British Library concludes, it’s probable that this oldest Valentine is in fact an anti-Valentine.

So what is the oldest actual valentine?

The British Library holds another letter considered to be the oldest surviving romantic Valentine’s Day letter. 

Likely the oldest surviving English Valentine’s Day letter, written in 1477 by Margery Brews to John Patson (The British Library)

Written in England in February 1477, a Margaret Brews writes to a John Patson, mentioning a “right well-beloved Valentine” and signs off as “‘your Valentine, Margery Brews”. 

This letter comes with its own fair share of dramatic history as it appears to have been written during negotiations for Margery to be married to John. A whole series of earlier letters show accusations of Margery’s dowry being too low and John’s position not being financially advantageous enough. This Valentine’s Day letter falls in the middle of it all, with Margery expressing romantic feelings and hope that all will be resolved. 

In a happy turn of events, later letters show that the two married shortly after as Margery’s mother successfully mediated the dowry problems.

The birth of valentines cards (18th-19th C.)

Georgian-era handmade folded valentine, c.1790 (History Extra)

French hand-painted valentine, c. 1775 (The MET Collection)

Industrialization and printing technology advances ushered in pre-printed Valentine’s cards in the late 1700s and early 1800s. While the artistry of homemade cards began to fade with these mass produced cards, they displayed an evolving range of new printing capabilities.

The York Museums Gallery in the UK holds what is believed to be the oldest pre-printed card, dating from 1797. It is ornate and likely hand-coloured after printing, featuring hearts, cupids, and flowers. The writing inside the card reveals another dramatic Valentine’s Day tale. Written by Catherine Mossday to a Mr. Brown in London, the message expresses dissatisfaction that Mr. Brown has not yet visited the lady as she had requested and demands that he come as she has “something particular to say”. (Or, as the Mirror put it, “Woman slams man for ghosting her in unearthed Valentine’s card from 1797”)

The oldest-known printed Valentine’s card, c. 1797, held by York Museums Gallery (BBC A History of the World)

With pre-printed cards easily accessible, Valentine’s card giving flourished in Victorian-era Britain (1820 to 1914). Many of these cards survive today, notably in a huge collection at the Museum of London that can be viewed online. Cards in this era were highly decorative with intricate lace covering much of their surface, flowers and animals painted on, and with gold detailing and poetic words as finishing touches.

Victorian-era pre-printed Valetine’s cards, mid-1800s (Museum of London)

In some cases, pre-printed cards were hand-finished with real flowers, feathers and even whole birds.

Cards were often hand-finished, such as these with flowers and a canary (Museum of London)

The Museum of London’s collection also shows some glimpses into the card manufacturer’s process (no doubt worthy of a design dive of its own!) These sample sheets, for example, show a selection of handcoloured, embossed decorations that could be cut out and applied to cards, with the manufacturer’s notes below them:

Top and bottom: Valentine’s card manufacturer sample sheets, late 1800s, by Jonathan King of London (Museum of London) 

One notable artist from this time, many of whose card designs appear in the MET Museum’s online collections, is British illustrator Kate Greenaway. Greenaway’s cards feature many of the same decorative elements as other Victorian-era cards, but stand out due to her distinct and colourful illustrations. Greenaway’s style was soft, in pastel colours and often depicted characters wearing clothing of past eras.

Selection of cards by British illustrator Kate Greenaway, late 1800s (The MET Collection)

Greenaway was notable for being a sought-after illustrator—a rare case for a woman in late 1800s Britain. Her first Valentine’s Day card in 1868 sold over 25,000 copies in just a few weeks. Greenaway was also known for her specialty in depicting historical clothing, remarkable knowledge in a time when you couldn’t easily research the fashion of past eras. Through her mother’s work as a seamstress, she was familiar with clothing from the medieval times until the 18th century. 

Not all Victorian cards were frilly and romantic. This era also saw the emergence of “vinegar cards”—simpler postcards with sassy and some downright rude messages. These cards were meant to be sent anonymously to turn someone down or as a joke between friends. 

Rude, or Vinegar Valentines cards, from the late 1800s (Museum of London)

Overall, the Victorian era saw a boom of Valentine’s cards in Britain. Their popularity especially soared after the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840, which allowed for a letter to be mailed for a penny. In 1871, the post office estimated that 1.2 million Valentine’s had been mailed that year in London alone.

American Valentines cards (19th-20th C.)

While Britain was booming with lacey Valentine’s cards in the mid-1850s, across the ocean in the United States, cards were only starting to become popular and weren’t well made. This all started to change when a young woman decided to design her own. 

Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts was inspired by the British cards her father sold in the family’s stationery shop and bookstore. In 1849, the 20-year old created prototypes of her first cards. Her own lacey colourful cards initially came at a variety of prices and became wildly popular. Within a year of the first orders, Howland had enough capital to set up the New England Valentine Co. with four women she hired to assemble cards in her family home.

Cards designed by American Valentine pioneer Esther Howland, c. 1850s-late 1800s (The MET Collection)

Howland created a card empire, earning her the title of “pioneer maker of valentines” by the Boston Globe. She is credited with single-handedly popularizing Valentine’s Day in the United States and launching an industry that is now worth $20 billion. Howland’s cards are popular collectors items today and many are also in the MET Museum’s online Valentines collection.

This leads us to the creation of what is now a household American name: Hallmark Cards. 

Artists at work in Hallmark offices, early 20th century (Hallmark)

The Hall brothers of Kansas City, Missouri started making Valentine’s cards in the early 1910s and would go on to found Hallmark in 1928. Among many accomplishments, the Hall brothers are credited with inventing a more private version of the greeting card which we know today – one that comes in an envelope as opposed to the postcard format.

While we’ve learned in this dive so far that Hallmark didn’t invent Valentine’s Day, and can’t even take the credit for bringing it over to the United States, there’s no denying how important a role the company and its designs played in the popularization of the holiday in the 20th and 21st century. 

A survey of Valentine’s cards made by Hallmark across decades is a reflection of its history and of rapidly changing design trends since the early 1900s:

Hallmark cards from 1910s, 1920s and 1930s (Hallmark)

Hallmark cards from the 1940s and 1950s (Hallmark)

Hallmark cards from the 1960s and 1970s (Hallmark)

Rethinking Valentine’s cards

In today’s era of Valentine’s Day commercial abundance, it’s easy to lose sight of the unique and long history of exchanging notes on this holiday. It’s a history of evolving designs and formats, from early medieval letters to decorative printed cards to today’s multitude of styles and designs.

It’s also a history of the changing notion of romantic love. As we saw in the early letters, marriage and attachments were made out of family duty and usually as an economic strategy. In Georgian and Victorian-era Britain, the notion of seeking relationships for love became more and more popular and this was reflected in the designs and messaging on the cards (and even in the rise of vinegar cards!)

Perhaps we can conclude that exchanging cards on Valentine’s Day goes beyond contemporary consumerism. Regardless of whether you consider it a romantic day or crass commercialism, by exchanging Valentine’s Day cards, we’re part of a 600-year-old history of romantic dramas, evolving notions of love and advances in printing methods and designs.

Dive Deeper

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There are so many resources for viewing historical Valentine’s Day cards online, and some delightfully niche collections by fellow history nerds too:

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Some further reading on people and cards mentioned:

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