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  • Writer's pictureKatharine Korte Andrew

The Charm and Eccentricity of Victorian Valentine's Day Cards

Valentine's Day, a celebration of love and affection, has seen its customs and traditions evolve remarkably over the centuries. One of the most enchanting eras of Valentine's Day history in the United States is undoubtedly the Victorian period, a time when the practice of exchanging Valentine's Day cards flourished with a unique blend of elegance, creativity, and sometimes, delightful peculiarity.

Hinsdale Valentine, circa late 1890s-1910s. Hinsdale Historical Society Archive.

The Victorian Era: A Time of Romantic Expression

The Victorian era, named after Queen Victoria, who reigned over the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1901, is often characterized by strict social norms and a formal code of etiquette. However, it was also a period when romantic love began to be idealized, and Valentine's Day provided a socially acceptable outlet for expressing those emotions often restrained by the era's social norms.

Valentine given to Dorothy Buffington. Circa 1910-1920. Hinsdale Historical Society Archives.

In the United States, the mid-19th century saw the popularization of Valentine's Day cards, influenced by European traditions and the growing American printing industry. These cards became a medium for individuals to convey their affections, often anonymously, in a period when direct expressions of romantic interest were considered “improper.”

The Artistry of Victorian Valentine's Cards

Victorian Valentine's cards are known for their intricate designs and craftsmanship. These cards often featured elaborate lace-like cutouts, embossing, and layers of fine paper with romantic imagery such as flowers, love knots, doves, and hearts. Hand-painted flowers and delicate watercolor illustrations were common, with each element carrying its own symbolic meaning. For example, red roses symbolized love, while forget-me-nots stood for true love and memories.

The cards often bore sentimental verses, ranging from heartfelt declarations of love to witty and sometimes cheeky rhymes. The art of penmanship was highly valued, and many cards featured beautifully handwritten messages that added a personal touch to these tokens of affection.

Elaborate Victorian valentine, circa 1890-1905. Hinsdale Historical Society Archives.

Popularity and Commercialization

By the late 19th century, the commercialization of Valentine's Day in the USA had begun. With advances in printing technology, mass-produced cards became widely available, making it easier and more affordable for people to participate in the tradition. Companies like Esther Howland's New England Valentine Company played a significant role in popularizing these cards. Howland is often credited with being the "Mother of the American Valentine" for her role in commercializing Valentine's Day cards in the USA. Her designs were elaborate creations with lace and ribbons, often imported from England initially before she began producing them domestically.

Valentine, circa 1890-1900. Hinsdale Historical Society Archives.
Valentine, circa 1890-1900. Hinsdale Historical Society Archives.

The Quirky Side of Victorian Valentines

Not all Victorian Valentine's cards were sweet and sentimental. The era also saw the rise of "Vinegar Valentines," a type of card that featured sarcastic remarks and was meant to tease or reject unwanted suitors.

Vinegar Valentine's Day Card, circa 1870. Public Domain.

These cards often depicted unflattering caricatures and came with humorous but biting verses, showcasing a more playful and sometimes cruel aspect of Victorian culture.

Vinegar Valentine's Day Card, circa 1905. Public Domain.


Today, Victorian Valentine's Day cards are a unique look into the past. While prized for their beauty, craftsmanship, they offer us a glimpse into the social norms, artistic trends, and technological advancements of the Victorian era in the USA. The tradition of exchanging Valentine's Day cards continues to be a significant part of the celebration today, albeit with modern twists. 

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