Valentines Day: a short history of cards that made money.

Forget about Hallmark. They get the blame for the commercialization of Valentine’s Day; but Hallmark didn’t start until 1910. One of the earliest people to make a fortune from Valentine’s Day was an American woman. The arrival of the penny post in England in 1840 resulted in the rapid growth of card sending. On the first Valentine’s Day after the penny post started, in 1841, 400,000 cards were sent by the English. By 1871, that had grown to 1.2 million.

The Victorian era, thanks mostly to the availability of postage to the masses, led the explosion in Valentine’s Days cards and sentiments. By 1830, the printing press allowed for mass market black and white cards; and by 1851 colour lithography became available. Martin and Co was one of the first English companies to print cards on a large scale. The upper classes distinguished themselves from the advent of cards for everyone by creating handmade cards with beautiful details; lace, feathers, ribbons, and printed drawings all featured on these cards. Some of them became so intricate that they came delivered in small boxes.

A Howland designed card from the 1870s.

One of these English cards made its way across the oceans to America into the hands of Esther Howland. Her father owned a small stationary shop. She saw the opportunity in that one card, and quickly mocked up a few options to sell in her father’s shop. Her brother took some samples with him as he did his sales rounds. All up, Howland expected to see US$200 worth of cards (that’s US$5,887 in 2015 dollars). Her brother arrived back at the shop with orders for $5,000 (2015 $147,000).

 Esther Howland

Howland created an assembly line in her house, employing local females to create the cards. Each woman had a different job; cutting out illustrations, adding verses, and all the different embellishments required by each design. Her assembly line pre-dates Henry Ford’s famous one by nearly 50 years. Further legend has it that Esther Howland inspected every card before it was sent to the client. After a few years, her cards were brand marked with a red heart. The cards were available across a range of prices, from five cents for a simple card to $1 for a complicated design that included ribbons, illustrations, hidden doors and even gilded lace. $1 in 1853 equates to $31.25 in 2015 – can you imagine paying over $30 for a card?

The business grew quickly, and soon Howland had a range of cards for other occasions as well. Christmas (still the biggest card market in America with 1.6 billion cards sent last year), New Years Day, birthday cards, and other keepsakes such as booklets and baskets.

Howland published a book in 1879 called The New England Valentine Co’s Valentine Verse Book. It contained 131 verses printed in different colours and sizes. The blurb suggested that if you liked a card, but not the verse, you could simply chose a verse you preferred from the book. Cut it out and paste it over the original verse.

When Howland sold her company in 1881, it was turning over $100,000 per annum (2015 $2.3 million). She died in 1904, aged 76. The company Hallmark that is so famous for cards that Valentine’s Day is often referred to as a Hallmark holiday, didn’t open until 1910. Perhaps it was the success of Howland (and others) that allowed the Hallmark company to build on their initial growth. In the USA, some 151 million cards are sold on Valentine’s Day, and in Australia over $14.2 million is spent on Valentine’s Day cards. It’s big business. Then and now.

Did you get a card for Valentine’s Day? Or does the overt commercialization of the day make you sneer?


  1. Renée Dahlia says:

    I love cards too. And these old Victorian era cards are delightful.

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