Valentine’s Day Cards – The Rest of the Story

A valentine from the Hoover collections.
A valentine from the Hoover collections.

Last year, I wrote on the Valentine’s Day Cards received by President Hoover (  I was surprised not only by the variety of cards in circulation in the early 1930s, but also by the large number of card manufacturers.  Growing up when and where I did, I assumed that Hallmark owned this holiday [and all other holidays involving cards].  Being a curious cat, I did some additional research.

Hallmark Cards do indeed dominate the recent Valentine’s Day landscape.  Some estimate that as many as one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year.  This number may diminish as folks turn to e-cards and emojis to express deep emotion in the future. 😉  Hallmark’s stranglehold on the Valentine holiday lasted nearly one hundred years.  Hallmark began mass-production of greeting cards from its Kansas City corporate home in the 1910s, joining an emerging market for commercial greeting cards. 

Other American card manufactures included: L Prang and Co. in Boston, Carrington in Chicago, Whitney Made in Massachusetts and Gibson Brothers out of Cincinnati.  Dozens of card companies from Britain and Germany also had small shares of the American market in the early 20th century.  Each relied on technological innovations in printing, relatively cheap postage, an increasingly literate populace, and the expanding cultural boundaries of romantic love to expand their reach.  By the latter 20th century [and into 21st century] nearly every American classroom embraced the exchange of Valentine cards between students.

Most point to Esther Howland as the prime mover in creating the tradition of Valentine Day’s cards in America.  Shortly after Esther graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1847, she received a hand-made Valentine card from an admirer in Great Britain.  Smitten by the idea [if not the sender], Esther devoted her life to producing and selling Valentine’s Day cards.  She started producing cards in her family home in Worcester, Massachusetts.  Hoping to sell $200 of cards, she was astounded when she sold more than $5000 worth in her first year.  A career was born.  By the 1870s, the small family enterprise had grown into the New England Valentine Company, mass-producing and selling millions of cards—earning Esther more than $100,000 each year.  When Esther Howland died in 1904, she was acclaimed as the ‘Mother of the American Valentine.’

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