Valentine’s Day cards have mysterious origins and have undergone hundreds of years of transformation. But I’m not going to get into all of that. Instead, we’re going to focus on the popularity of postcard Valentines in the United States in the early 20th century.
During the Victorian Age, people went all out on their Valentines. Prior to mass production in factories, the cards were made either individually by artists or by the lovers themselves. They would be adorned with lace, silk, chiffon, and/or satin, and would occasionally contain added embellishments such as a lock of hair, a mirror, a puzzle purse, or an envelope containing a tiny present. The imagery was similar to today’s, with hearts, flowers, birds, cupids, children, and darts from top to bottom.
These cards were gorgeous and made with painstaking detail, which made them quite expensive to purchase as well as to ship. In some cases the cards were so heavily adorned that they came in equally elaborate presentation boxes. To make matters more complicated, the prepaid stamp did not exist in many areas, and recipients were forced to pay for the postage themselves at the time of delivery. Most people were priced out of sending or receiving such messages, and they were typically dropped off to the loved one’s home in person.
This all changed once countries were able to mass produce lithographs and the prepaid penny post was established. These two shifts made the cards themselves less expensive and the shipping rate dropped dramatically to one cent. Initially, the Valentines were assembled in a postcard format rather than as standard greeting cards, and the ability to create and circulate these postcards completely altered the types of messages being sent.
Up until the late 1800s, the cards followed a formula with a male cupid or suitor presenting a receptive woman with love in the form of a poem or an arrow or an image. There were outliers from this sentimentality, as pornographic cards as well as joke cards (known as Vinegar Valentines) were on the market as well. But the majority portrayed accepted gender roles through rose tinted glasses. This tone began to shift with the heyday of the postcard Valentine.
The New Woman hit the scene, and the cards of the day shifted to depict the new fashions, passions, and powers of women. Rather than the submissive recipient of love, the women were shown confronting Cupid, rejecting men, and carefully selecting hearts from marketplaces. The image motifs still had heart-bird-darts-children-and-flowers abounding, but the messages of these began to communicate an independence and selectivity for the women that had not previously existed. To be sure, they were still absolutely saturated with sappiness, but the representations of relationships on these cards marked a shift in the market.
Postcards were the most popular form of Valentine’s Day cards in the U.S. from 1890 to 1917, and people would keep albums of their postcards to personally enjoy as well as share with visitors. Many were hand drawn mass-produced cards, while others were black and white photographs that were hand-tinted with color. It became en vogue to collect the most striking and unusual postcards for these albums in order to impress guests.
The majority of people were not restricted from sending Valentines anymore; it was no longer a novelty for the upper class that could afford it. The middle-class and working-class had access to the holiday’s customs, and with that the common messages were forever changed, often playing with the Valentine template by reversing gender roles and altering the scenery. Granted, these changes were depicted both positively and negatively, but the accessibility of the cards allowed for a radically new way to communicate ideas. And this was done via holiday cards that the wealthy had predominantly engaged with in the past.