St. Valentine's Day began as a liturgical celebration of one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus. The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentinus was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentinus, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentinus’ actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
The legend continues that while in prison, Valentinus developed a friendship with his jailer’s blind daughter and miraculously restored her sight. On the evening of his execution, Valentinus wrote her a note, expressing his affection and signed it “from your Valentine.”
Jack B. Oruch writes that the first recorded association of Valentine's Day with romantic love is in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer. Valentine greetings were popular in the Middle Ages, though written Valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes.
The history of valentines in the United States began during the mid-18th century. Early valentines were hand-made, several of which are included in our Greeting Card Collection, from which these valentines were selected. Some early styles of valentines used cutouts, pinpricks, and rebuses as well as theorem work, a specific form of painting.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, most printed valentines were imported from Europe, but Americans began to see the financial incentive of producing valentines in America. In 1840, Jotham W. Taft of Grafton, Massachusetts, employed by a stationer, was assigned to go to Europe for supplies. During the buying trip, Taft saw many valentines on display and became enamored of them. On a side trip to Germany, he purchased many tiny feathered doves, lacy paper and small lithographs of flowers, birds and cupids, along with finished valentines.
Returning to Grafton, with his wife’s help, he assembled his first valentines. They were well-received. Within a year, the demand had exceeded the capacity of the small workspace in the upper room of his home. Taft enlarged his enterprise, and, in 1844, opened a valentine ‘’factory” in North Grafton (New England Village). Several Worcester women were engaged to work with Taft and it is believed that Miss Esther Howland, sometimes credited as being the first American valentine maker, was among them, thus getting her start in valentine making.
Howland and Taft eventually sold their companies to George Whitney. Cards published by Taft, Howland, and Whitney are represented in this collection, along with those produced by E. P. Dutton, Louis Prang, Ernest Nister, Marcus Ward, and others. This online exhibit shows only a portion of our over 1,000 Valentine cards.
NOTE: In order to better view the designs on those valentines using embossed paper or cutout work, additional contrast was applied to the image and items have been scanned on black paper to more thoroughly emphasize the design.
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