Valentines from the Phillips Library

Valentines by Louis Prang, circa 1880s

The ancient custom of observing St. Valentine’s Day began with the early Romans, but the first written message using St. Valentine’s name is found in England in the late 1600s. The oldest valentines that the Phillips Library holds are these two in the Spitzenbilder style. Folk artists created papercuts in Germany in the 17th century. Austrian monks and nuns went on to create “Spitzenbilder,” splendid “lace-pictures” of cut paper.

Two German Spitzenbilder valentines, circa 1770s

The earliest United States valentines appear to have been made during the middle of the 18th century. Early valentines were hand made and posted by hand, usually deposited on the lady’s doorstep.

Handmade American paper-cut valentine, circa 1810

Some early styles were cutouts, pinpricks, and rebuses (a kind of word puzzle that uses pictures to represent words). Another early style is theorem work, or Poonah, an Oriental style of painting. Theorem work (painting with the aid of stencils) was popular among girls at boarding schools during the 1840s.


Theorem work or Poonah painting, circa 1835-1840

While most valentines were imported from England and Germany in the latter half of the nineteenth century, some Americans were beginning to see the profit potential in producing cards in America. Esther Howland (1828-1904) of Worcester, Massachusetts, was one of the first to manufacture valentines in this country. Her father operated a large book and stationery store, but Howland was inspired by an English valentine she had received from a business associate of her father. Intrigued with the idea of making similar valentines, Howland began her business by importing paper lace and floral decorations from England. By 1848 at least eleven American businesses had begun to produce their own valentines.

Girls making valentines during the 1850s

The Phillips Library has many examples of Howland valentines from the 1840s to 1900. They range from a rather simple design to quite elaborate.

Three Howland valentines, circa 1840s

The work got more elaborate as time progressed.


Howland valentine, circa 1870s

Another well-recognized name is Louis Prang, who is known for his brilliant use of chromolithography. His valentines were beautifully lithographed in full color. His designs included flowers, children, cupids, butterflies, and young women.

Silk-fringed Prang valentine, circa 1880s

One popular style of valentines at the turn of the century was Art Nouveau. Some valentines were cut out into shapes.

J. A. Lowell & Company fan shaped valentine, circa 1879


After World War I, changes in valentines’ style were beginning to appear. For those who had more money, large elaborate cards were available. Fold-down and honeycomb styles were popular.

Fold-down locomotive valentine, circa 1910-1920

During our preparations for our move to a temporary facility, we discovered a long-hidden wooden cabinet, filled with over one thousand 19th- and 20th-century valentines and other greeting cards, some of which are pictured here. Donated by various individuals, these beautiful, colorful cards are now available to the public. To see this lovely collection, please visit us at the Phillips Library and ask for manuscript collection MSS 440.

One thought on “Valentines from the Phillips Library

  1. This history fascinated me, particularly the illustration of the young women producing cards–they have pleasant facial expressions that I’m hoping came from the lovely handy work with love sentiments that they were making. The Howland collection speaks for itself–amazing! Does the library have more research material on Ms. Howland and her entrepreneurship? Enticing article!

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