The First Written Valentines

Verbal and singing valentines began to be replaced by written missives in Europe in the 15th century. The first written valentine is usually attributed to the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. He reportedly passed the time by writing romantic verses for his wife. By the 16th century, written valentines were commonplace.

What were early valentines like?

Early valentines were made by hand, using colored paper, watercolors and colored inks. These valentine styles, some still made today, included:

  • Pinprick valentines - Made by pricking tiny holes in paper with a pin to resemble the look of lace
  • Cutout valentines- Lace-look cards made by folding paper several times and cutting out a lace design with small, sharp scissors
  • Acrostic valentines - Verses in which the first letters in the lines spelled out the beloved's name
  • Rebus valentines - Verses in which small pictures took the place of some of the words (for example, an eye instead of I)

Cards decorated with black and white pictures painted by factory workers began to be created in the early 1800s; by the end of the century, valentines were being made entirely by machine. Sociologists theorize that printed cards began to take the place of letters, particularly in Great Britain, because they were an easy way for people to express their feelings in a time when direct expression of emotions was not fashionable.

Manufactured cards notwithstanding, increasingly beautiful handmade Valentines were often small works of art, richly decorated with silk, satin or lace, flowers or feathers and even gold leaf. And many featured Cupid, the cherubic, be-winged son of Venus, and a natural Valentine's Day "mascot." (If you'd like to read more about Cupid, take a look at Holidays.net: Cupid.)

Some of the more unusual valentines were created by lonely sailors during the Victorian era -- they used seashells of various sizes to create hearts, flowers and other designs or to cover heart-shaped boxes.