Collection Spotlight: Valentines

February 14–28, 2018

The modern obsession with valentine cards emerged in the United States and Britain during the Victorian era. Valentine’s Day was one of the first holidays to be commercialized. Today, Americans exchange more cards on February 14 than on any other day, except Christmas.

The first valentine cards were home crafts, with intricately cut paper, collage elements, and hand lettering. In 1847, Esther Howland began to market elaborate cards in Massachusetts; and in the 1860s, Boston-based Louis Prang became a leading supplier of valentines. Prang perfected the chromolithography process to mass-produce colorful cards, selling them for anywhere from five cents to one dollar. Images of couples and flowers combined with romantic poems were popular, as well as humorous scenes, jokes, and puns. Die-cut shapes, silk fringe, and pop-up elements gave the more expensive valentines a fancy, handmade touch.

George C. Whitney Co. Valentine’s Day Card (detail), late 19th century. Chromolithograph; silvered and gilded cut and embossed paper. Gift of Miss Alice W. Sowdon, 1950 (50.5E).