February 14


Design Inspiration From Vintage Valentine's Day Cards

Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in many countries around the world.  It’s hard to ignore it even if you don’t celebrate it.  I decided to look into the story behind this major marketing holiday to get a better understanding of where it came from, how it originated and how it evolved into the marketing products celebrating a day of love.

The story behind this day

There are many different theories on the origin of this day, but they all contain traces of both Christian and ancient Roman traditions.  The Roman Catholic church has recognized various saints named Valentius (or, “Valentine”)  and all of them were martyred in history.

One legend takes place in the third century war in Rome (AD 235-284), a period where the Roman Empire nearly collapsed when several issues (economic depression, civil war, plagues and invasions) surfaced at the same time.  Emperor Claudius II thought that single men were better soldiers than those with wives and families and decided to make marriage illegal to young men preparing for combat.  However, a Roman priest named Valentinus defied the emperor’s order, and performed secret marriages between the young men and their lovers. Claudius condemned him to death when he found out about his betrayal.

Another legend suggests that Valentine helped Christians escape Roman prisons where they were beaten and tortured. While in prison, Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, a blind young girl that used to pray with him everyday, whose sight he miraculously recovered. Before his beheading under the orders of Claudius II, Valentine sent a note to the young woman and signed it “From Your Valentine.”

Even though the story behind the origin of this day is not completely clear, they all refer to a heroic, sympathetic and romantic figure (tweet this!). Valentine would become the most popular saint during the Middle Ages in England and France.

The first Valentine’s letter

Valentine’s Day greeting cards did not appear until the 1400’s, despite this martyr’s rise to fame during the Middle Ages.

In fact, the first Valentine’s Day letter was sent by French nobleman, Charles, Duke of Orleans, while he was imprisoned by the English in the Tower of London in 1415.  Charles was imprisoned for 24 years, and spent his time writing melancholic poetry about his captivity.

The evolution

Valentine’s Day began its popular celebration in the 17th century when it was common for friends and lovers to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes.

By 1900, thanks to improvements in printed technology and affordable postage rates, ready-made printed cards replaced handwritten notes, making it easier for people to express their emotions in a time when expressing direct feelings was discouraged.

An American woman named Esther A. Howland is considered the “Mother of the American Valentine”. After receiving a Valentine’s note from her father’s business associate when she was 19 years old, she decided to create elaborate Valentine’s greeting cards with imported paper lace and floral decorations from England.  Her father had a book and stationery store in Massachusetts and decided to support her project.  She created a dozen of these highly elaborate cards and gave them to her brother to sell.  He came back from his business trips with a large amount of revenue, so she decided to start an official business known as the “New England Valentine Company”.

Cloth and lace Valentine card made by Esther Howland, ca. 1870s. Typescript inside card: “You say my heart, my too fond heart, Is cold, my dear, to you; Ah! canst thou such a thought impart to one who loves so true?”

Valentine’s Day Branding

So how did Valentine’s Day become what it is today? And more importantly, when did images of children, winged little angels, hearts and arrows with heart-shaped ends become symbols of romantic love?

I decided to look for old (but good) Valentine’s Day greeting cards in the NYPL Digital Gallery to identify the main elements used to represent words of love sent to that special someone.  The symbols are all very similar and repetitive, including birds delivering a message of love, flowers, hearts, boys and girls representing the purity of romantic love and the small and recognizable images of a winged angel known as Cupid, the god of desire, attraction, erotic love and affection.

This mix and match of mythology and socially established symbols of romanticism seem to find their match when surrounded by ornaments, shades of red, gold and pastel tones and handwritten typefaces.

Take some time to observe the cards below. Think about how these designs evolved from their delicate origins to the mainstream products available today. How do the different styles impact their sentiments? Use this knowledge as inspiration for to your next project and see what you come up with!


Branding, Design, History

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    • Aw! Thank you Jenny, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love to look back for visual inspiration and V-Day was a great excuse to do so.

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