Daisie M. Helyar’s scrapbook is filled with evidence of an active social life. In her schooldays, affection was often expressed by the exchange of cards among friends and family. She saved Halloween decorations, a Thanksgiving card, patriotic cards, postcards, and sentimental notes in the pages of her scrapbook. She even saved a Christmas stocking! By far, the most heavily represented form of holiday correspondence in Daisie’s scrapbook is the Valentine.
Valentine’s Day is a festival with hazy origins and a rich variety of traditions. It is unclear which Saint Valentine – there were two, both early Christian martyrs – the holiday originally commemorated. Both Saints Valentine were martyred in Rome on February 14. February 15 was the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, a celebration of the she-wolf who suckled Rome’s founders. When Roman names and traditions were being eradicated in the Christian era, the festivals merged and the name “Valentine” became associated with a celebration of fertility – or, for propriety’s sake, love.
Saint Valentine’s Day has been a celebration of coupling since at least the late Middle Ages, when it was believed that birds chose their mates in mid-February. The feast of Saint Valentine became associated with courtship, choosing a sweetheart, and the exchange of affectionate gifts. In 1667, Samuel Pepys described how, members of the English court having drawn lots at random to determine that year’s Valentines, Lady Arabella Stuart received a piece of jewelry worth £800 from the Duke of York (Pepys 184). Handwritten notes and poems, on high-quality paper, were common until the early 19th century, when English stationers recognized a business opportunity.
Valentines were incredibly popular in Victorian England. New machinery made it possible to emboss paper with elaborate designs, or to cut so many holes in a piece of paper that it looked like lace. These machine-made papers were assembled by hand, decorated with paintings or prints, embellished with silk, satin, even feathers and pearls. Valentines were not all sentimental. By the 1850s, there were also inexpensive comic Valentines, often a black and white lithograph on undecorated paper – these were precursors to the postcard Valentines that became popular in the early 20th century. In late 19th-century England, two new formats – the Christmas card and the picture postcard – surpassed Valentines in popularity (Shell 18). The trend of exchanging Valentines subsided in England for a period, and those stationers that were not forced to close shop turned their attention to foreign markets such as Australia and America.
Concern was expressed at an 1884 meeting in London of the Company of Old English Valentine Makers that the practice of Valentine exchange was declining. But they expressed hope for profits abroad: "Among other points the leaflet proclaimed that the tradition of sending love tokens was not dead, but much alive, and described how in the United States the valentine trade was very flourishing" (Staff 112). America had long been a big market for imported Valentines. In 1847, a shipment arrived in Boston that was advertised as follows:
"A. S. Jordan , No. 2 Milk Street, respectfully informs his friends that he has received by the above steamer, the greatest assortment of Valentines to be found in Cupid's regions, among which may be found the following kinds: Comic, Sentimental, Lovesick, Acrostic, Funny, Burlesque, Curious, Characteristic, Humorous, Beautiful, Heart-struck, Witty, Arabesque, Courting, Serio-Comical, Bewitching, Poetical, Heart-rending, Love-encouraging, Trifling, Caricature, Heart-piercing, Serio-tragical, Laughable, Silly, Spiteful, Original, Enlivening, Heart-aching, Despairing, Raving-Mad, Heart-killing, High-flown, Lampooning, Romantic, Look-out, Proposal, Espousal, Matrimonial, Hen-pecking, Suicidal, and many other varieties" (Staff 83).
Starting in the 1840s, American Valentine manufacturers such as Esther Howland, George Whitney, and Louis Prang took advantage of Americans’ hunger for sentimental Valentines, often created on an assembly line and decorated with lace and ribbons. By the end of the 1800s, Valentines were more often printed with brightly-colored lithographs. Mass production of Valentines meant that the quality of the paper deteriorated as the price decreased. The decrease in price made it possible to send Valentines to multiple recipients. By the turn of the century, the holiday was less about choosing a sweetheart and more about expressing general affection for loved ones.
Valentines swamped America’s postal system annually. Some were made domestically and some were still imported. In 1910, the year of Daisie’s graduation from Simmons, one newspaper reported that “a merchant from Chicago had ordered that year 5 million valentines, weighing 200 tons and packed in 6000 cases” (Shell 19). The exchange of inexpensive, machine-made Valentines – often printed in Germany – remained a popular social custom until World War I diminished international trade (Staff 118).
As evidenced by Daisie’s scrapbook, Valentines of the first decade of the 20th century were often simple images printed on inexpensive postcards. Some of Daisie’s Valentines were printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons, a prolific publisher of greeting cards at this period. At least one was imported from Germany. They could be slightly humorous, but rarely to the point of cruelty. (One of them would be considered unacceptably cruel by today’s standards, in that it shows a racist caricature of an Asian person.) They were not elaborately decorated in the manner of Vicorian Valentines, but they were often rich with imagery of hearts, children, people in period costume, and playful Cupids.
Daisie was in a relationship with her future husband, John Putnam Helyar, while she attended Simmons. But it is likely that most, if not all, of the Valentines in her scrapbook came from friends. Many were sent to Daisie by her friend from Brattleboro, Vermont, Helen M. Weatherhead. Others came from classmates at Simmons. Some were purchased and some were handmade. In the early 20th century, the tradition of Valentine exchange was largely sustained by the exchange of cards among friends and classmates at American schools.
American Antiquarian Society (2001). Making Valentines: A Tradition in America. Retrieved from http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Exhibitions/Valentines/origins.htm.
Lee, R. W. (1953). A history of valentines. London: B.T. Batsford.
Pepys, S., & Latham, R. (2000). 1667. The diary of Samuel Pepys: a new and complete transcription (Robert Latham, Ed.). London: HarperCollins.
Shell UK Limited. (1995). The valentine 1830-1960: From the Shell Art Collection. Newtown: Oriel 31.
Staff, F. (1969). The valentine and its origins. New York: Praeger.