History of the Victorian Valentine


No other moment so captures the very essence of an era as the Victorian Valentine!  These lovingly crafted tokens of L*O*V*E hide within their paper lace, scraps, hearts, cupids and flowers fascinating clues to that glorious gilded age in which the Valentine was totally transformed from mere paper to an elaborate Art Form!  We love our collection of frilly, fancy cards, and in this guide will outline a brief history of Valentine’s Day, Valentines and the different "types" of Valentines so amazingly popular in the Victorian Era.

History of Valentine’s Day

The history of Valentine’s Day is part fact, part legend.  The holiday’s roots are in the ancient Roman feast of Lupercallia, a fertilitycelebration commemorated on February 15th. The Catholic Church recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day c. 496, declaring February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day.

As there were three Christian saints by that name, historians are not quite sure which one was to be honored by this, all three were astonishingly martyred on Feb. 14.  Most scholars believe the St. Valentine of the holiday was a priest who was disfavored by the Roman emperor Claudius II around 270. There are several romantic Myths surrounding him, but most likely he was put to death for refusing to renounce his faith in God.  In the 14th century, Chaucer first linked Valentine’s Day with Love…in 1381, he composed a poem to celebrate the engagement of England’s Richard II and Ann of Bohemia.

Tradition of Valentine’s Cards

Written Valentines began to appear after 1400, these were mostly written love letters (the oldest Valentine in existence was made in the 1400’s and is in the British Museum) Decorated writing papers became very popular right before the turn of the century, by 1800 decorated papers appeared with Valentine’s Day themes. When nineteenth century technology advanced and printing became more sophisticated, the Victorian Valentine business really boomed!

The London stationary firm of Joseph Addenbrooke became a major contributor in the "evolution" of the commercial Valentine, during the 1830’s he discovered how he could create paper to imitate lace.  Soon lace paper or "doilies" became all the rage as English stationers competed fiercely to make elaborate doilies that looked like real lace!

Over the next thirty years, Valentine cards were made in great numbers and variety.While the most dominant theme for Valentines would always be LOVE, comic and sometimes even insulting Valentines were also well~loved!

This is one where the message is not encouraging to the suitor!


The period between 1840 and 1860 is considered to be "the Golden Age of Valentines" by collectors.  During this time the printing technology of chromolithoraphy was perfected, producing astonishingly beautiful printed designs known as "chromos." 

These were produced in such a wide range of exquisite colors, were relatively inexpensive, and they soon became part of the mass culture, the Victorians used them to embellish practically everything!  The most popular were large sheets of "scrap" used to fill large Scrapbooks, a most compelling hobby for both young children as well as young women.

During this period the art of making Love’s Own Messages became quite the rage! Using Paper Lace, Scraps, Silk Ribbons, Fringe, Feathers, Tinsel, Glitter and other regalia, the Victorians could make original dainty creations that won admiration from all the fair ladies to whom they were presented!

Mesh and lace-paper were layered over colored Silk to show them to a fabulous effect, portions of the cards were moveable, revealing hidden messages of affection and love. Pictorial "pop-up" Valentines were a popular later. Some of these were quite simple, using paper springs to create a 3-dimensional effect, but others could give a real sense of depth when opened.

A Sweet Valentine with "pop~up" center Cherubs, Dresdens and real leaves.


Both the "home" as well as the commercial making of Valentines flourished, Valentines were among the few tokens that could be exchanged between men and women, and much was read between the lines of these missives.  Depending on the elaborateness of the cards, a young lady could measure the true affection of her suitors!

The Valentine Comes To America

In 1847, Esther Howland, of  Worcester, Mass., received a typical commercial English Valentine.  She loved it, and convinced her father, who was a stationer, to order a large supply of materials from England for her.  She made a small assortment of Valentines, which her brother (a traveling salesman) showed to his clients. He returned with 5,000 orders, and Esther set up shop, hired a few friends, and started the first assembly line Valentine Card making business!  Her Valentines were so elaborate, each was sold in a box, for $5.00 – $10.00, which was quite a lot of money those days!

An example of Esther’s Valentines


By the end of the nineteeth century, improvements in color-printing made commercially~made Valentines preferable over home-made ones, and the cards were sent not only to one special Valentine, but to a wide circle of friends and relations.  Marcus Ward in England, and Louis Prang here in the United States competed fiercely with their beautiful Valentines.  Prang began to trim his cards with lush Silk Fringe, and soon this replaced the paper lace borders on the most highly prized Valentines.

An example of a card with Scraps and Paper Lace

Types of Valentines

There are so many different types of Valentines, each is charming in their own way.  A few different Valentines Collectors look for are:

    • Acrostic valentines – have verses in which the first lines spell out
      the loved one’s name

    • Cutout valentines – made by folding the paper several times and then
      cutting out a lacelike design with small, sharp, pointed scissors

    • Pinprick Valentines – made by pricking tiny holes in the paper with a
      pin or needle, creating the look of lace

    • Rebus Valentines – verses in which tiny pictures take the place of
      some of the words. (an eye would take the place of the word I)

    • Puzzle Purse Valentines – a folded puzzle to read and refold.
      Among their many folds were verses that had to be read in a
      certain order

    • Fraktur Valentines – had ornamental lettering in the style of
      illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages

    • Love Knot Valentines – were made of ribbon or drawn on paper made of loops, sometimes in the shape of hearts. On the loops were written messages to be read by turning the knot around and around.

To hold a frilly, lacey Victorian Valentine is to be connected with a more Romantic Era.  The Victorians lived in that golden age, when their Victorian Homes were full of lavish decorations, every holiday was celebrated to the fullest, and Home and Family was adored above all else!


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Pau
    Feb 14, 2009 @ 13:58:27

    How very interesting…I learned a lot today, have a great day, xxhug, Pauline


  2. Angel eyes
    Feb 14, 2009 @ 17:07:44

    fascinating research and by the way happy valentines day to a wonderful sweetheart you hugs dear angel eyes


  3. Adrian
    Feb 14, 2009 @ 17:44:19

    Many Pagan Holidays etc…seem to have come out of The Catholic church! Great info..Adrian


  4. Beth
    Feb 14, 2009 @ 18:08:01

    Great research!! Happy Valentine\’s Day!!


  5. Patsy
    Feb 14, 2009 @ 18:37:34

    Happy Valentines Day dear friend and I hope all is well with you. I loved you research on Victorian Valentines , you know how I love Victorian era. Stay warm, Hugs, Pat


  6. Sheila
    Feb 14, 2009 @ 18:41:24

    Thanks for the great history of Valentine\’s day. I have to say it\’s all new to me because I never really looked into how it got started. The cards are beautiful! While I was reading through your blog, I remembered how we used to exchange cards at school. While in elementary school, we\’d decorate bags with our names and hearts and hang them around the room. Then, the day before Valentine\’s, we\’d have a party and drop cards in our friends bags. Thanks for bringing up those fun memories.


  7. Aussie
    Feb 15, 2009 @ 04:08:39

    Thanks for that blog , I have always wondered where this day originated fromand what the significance with love was , now I know but still think the Victorian erawas the period that love and romance blossomedIan


  8. Zeynep
    Feb 15, 2009 @ 06:46:03

    Great entry Rhonda, thanks. Have a good day to you. Love and peace, Zeynep xx


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