Your child’s Victorian Valentine’s Day card will be one in 145 million

This Victorian doily Valentine’s card, circa 1880s, is part of the collection at the Whatcom Museum.
This Victorian doily Valentine’s card, circa 1880s, is part of the collection at the Whatcom Museum. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Valentine’s Day is nearing and as we shop for gifts and cards, it’s fun to reflect on the traditions of the past. The custom of making and sending cards for this holiday has been around for more than 150 years. The museum’s own collection features more than 65 unique handmade and vintage Valentine’s Day cards created and sent around the turn of the century, with the earliest dating back to the 1850s.

Much legend and lore surrounds the origin of St. Valentine’s Day. Historians generally agree that this celebration of love and devotion borrows elements from both ancient Roman and early Christian traditions. The holiday became popular in the early seventeenth century in Great Britain and is now celebrated in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia.

The tradition of sending ornate cards as part of the Valentine’s Day celebration on Feb. 14 began during the Victorian era. During this time, it was common for people from all social classes to express feelings of friendship and ardor through the exchange of notes, small gifts or hand-written verse. Elaborate postcards, and later folding cards, were hand-crafted at home or in small factories throughout Great Britain. These were often adorned with lace and ribbon, colored illustrations and embossed borders.

By the mid-1800s, the popularity of exchanging Valentine’s Day cards through the mail exploded, due to improved mass-production printing technology and reforms in the postal service. In 1841, the first year after postal reforms were put in place, more than 400,000 Valentine’s Day cards were sent through the mail.

At around this same time in the US, the popularity of exchanging cards was growing. The New England Valentine Company, founded by Massachusetts entrepreneur Esther A. Howland (1828–1904), is credited with being the first to start a Valentine’s Day card business in the U.S. It quickly grew into a very profitable endeavor with her valentines gaining renown throughout the country, and earning her the title, “The Mother of the American valentine.”

Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, Valentine’s Day cards make up about a quarter of all greeting cards sold annually, or an estimated 145 million cards, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday.

beets card
This beetroot Valentine card is part of the collection at the Whatcom Museum and was a gift of Alice Lehnhoff. Whatcom Museum Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Make historic Valentines at the FIG: Children of all ages are invited to celebrate the art and history of Valentine cards by dropping into the Family Interactive Gallery Studio to make cards using old-fashioned examples from our photo archives. Sift through vintage Valentine’s cards, then make your own 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8 to Saturday, Feb. 10 and from noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11. Activities are included with admission and are free to museum members.

Christina M. Claassen is Whatcom Museum’s marketing and public relations manager. Reach her at cmclaassen@cob.org. She was assisted with research by Rebecca L. Hutchins, curator of collections.

Whatcom Museum

The non-profit Whatcom Museum is operated by the Whatcom Museum Foundation and the city of Bellingham. The Old City Hall building at 121 Prospect St. and the Lightcatcher Building at 250 Flora St. are open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays. The Family Interactive Gallery, located inside the Lightcatcher, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission, good for all sites in a day, is $10 general, $8 youth (6-17 years) and student, senior or military, $5 children (2-5 years). Memberships start at $50 and include free museum admission.

The museum offers a variety of programs and exhibitions about art, nature and Northwest history. Its collections contain more than 200,000 artifacts and art of regional importance, including a photographic archive. The museum is accredited nationally by the American Alliance of Museums and is a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate.