Possibly the most exciting class party of elementary school each year fell on Valentine’s Day. I don’t know what it was about turning a shoebox into a “mailbox” and collecting Valentines from classmates, but Valentine’s Day took the cake. I remember meticulously picking out my box of printed Valentines each year, usually featuring cats, and making sure the one I gave my crush didn’t come across as too romantic. Whether consumers have realized it or not, Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest commercial holidays of the year, and a significant one for the print industry and for marketers.
One of the biggest spectacles of Valentine’s Day is engagement. Although engagement and diamond rings go together seamlessly, it wasn’t always so. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, diamond cartel De Beers solicited the help of New York agency N.W. Ayer to sell its new expanse of South African diamonds. The ad agency worked to craft the idea that endless, special romance could only be expressed with a diamond ring. The result was the iconic, highly successful slogan “A Diamond Is Forever.” As women began to expect a diamond ring as a form of engagement, men followed suit, and diamond sales rose exponentially, increasing from $23 million to $2.1 billion over the next 40 years. With that, a simple marketing message turned a campaign into a worldwide phenomenon that stands the test of time.
With this knowledge, I was curious to find out more about the print industry’s role in Valentine’s Day. Where and when did printed Valentine’s Day cards begin stealing the hearts of consumers? Surprisingly, the practice of exchanging Valentine’s notes dates all the way back to the 1500s with the gifting of handmade cards and love notes. By the 1700s, the print industry took advantage and began producing commercially printed cards. The United States adopted this trend around the mid-1800s, and valentines often depicted Cupid, hearts, and other symbols associated with love. While original Valentine’s notes were often hand-made, the onset and growing affordability of commercial print increased the sales and availability of pre-made cards.
Enter Esther Howland, the “Mother of the American Valentine”, whose romantic cards were attributed as the first mass market printed valentines in the United States. Achieving huge success, she rebranded as the New England Valentine Company, the first of many print companies solely focused on the production of valentines. One of the most famous valentines companies was Hallmark Valentines, which is still around today. Hallmark is often credited with the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, as other inspired companies joined in on the fun selling chocolates, flowers, and other gifts, shaping the holiday we know today.
At present, Valentine’s Day is the second most popular day to send printed cards, behind Christmas. According to the Greeting Card Association, in 2017 Americans were expected to spend $1 billion on cards. In total, spending for the holiday fell around $18.2 billion. With these numbers, it is no surprise that year after year the print industry continues to ask consumers the age old question in its cards—will you be my Valentine?
By Marley Niesz