Vintage and Antique St. Valentine’s Day Cards

February 13, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

Did you know that the oldest surviving valentine greeting, in English, dates back to 1455? It was sent from Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.

Valentine’s Day began to be celebrated in the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century it was common for friends and lovers to exchange small tokens or letters and by 1900, due to improvements in the printing process, printed cards began to replace handwritten notes. This was also a period of time in which public expression of feelings was discouraged.

In America from 1848-1881, Esther A. Howland aka the “Mother of American Valentine”, created elaborate printed cards for resale. Cards created by her company, the New England Valentine Co.,were very elegant with ribbons, lace and colored paper. She built a $100,000-a-year business creating ornate cards with romantic sentiments that would forever change the celebration of love on Valentine’s Day. Cards made by the New England Valentine Co. can be identified by a sticker or printed mark with a red letter H or “NEV Co” embossed on to the card. 

For many collectors of ephemera valentine cards make the heart beat a little faster. They are a window to love with the sentimental messages, declarations of love and beautiful, or sometimes comical, images. A valentine card collector may focus on a specific era or genre of card such as cards that depict dogs or other animals on the front, sports themed cards, mechanical valentines, early scrap valentine cards, dimensional or honeycomb valentine. This is just a small sampling of styles that have been made and have survived the years.

Author’s Note: As a child I loved Valentine’s Day. I remember bringing a shoe box or brown paper bag to school where we would get to spend a few hour decorating it. On Valentine’s Day it was always a thrill to sort through the cards received to see if the boy you liked dropped a card in to your beautifully decorated ‘mailbox’. I actually still have quite a few of my early school day cards they are safely tucked away in my curio cabinet.

From the late 1800′s to around 1920 there was a genre of valentine cards referred to as ‘Vinegar Valentine’s”. These cards were not about sweet, lovely thoughts and words of love. They would poke fun at the recipient’s looks, their profession or other unflattering personal traits. They were intended as jokes but I would imagine that a few feelings were hurt and friendships shattered.

Several well known artists created artwork for mass produced valentine cards. Rose O’Neill, Frances Brundage, Norman Rockwell, Kate Greenaway and George Cruikshank just to name a few. So if you do decide to get in to collecting valentine cards be sure to analyze the artwork to see if it can be recognized as belonging to a noted artist.

Collecting valentine cards does not have to cost a fortune, you can still find pre-1960 cards for under $5 USD each and for most of us these are the cards that will bring back fond childhood memories. The older the card the higher the price with some selling for hundreds of dollars or more. Sailor valentine’s can bring auction prices in the five figure range at auction.

As I write this article I wonder how much longer we will see beautiful paper valentine’s. With technology changing at such a rapid pace many people no longer mail or give out valentine cards, even schools are moving away from this wonderful tradition, they are posted on Facebook, tweeted, emailed or “exchanged” electronically. Is this a collectible genre where we will see rising prices in years to come? It is certainly something to think about.

“Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.”
……. Henry Van Dyke

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!