Custom of sending Valentine cards temporarily died out in early 1900s Ireland

Custom of sending Valentine cards temporarily died out in early 1900s Ireland.
The once-popular custom of sending Valentine cards dwindled in Ireland in the late 1800s and died out almost completely for a time in the early 1900s.

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The once-common practice of sending Valentine cards experienced a sharp decline in Ireland during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although various efforts to revive the tradition failed, a successful resurgence occurred in the mid-20th century when the country rediscovered its romantic side.

In an article featured in the Belfast Newsletter in 1924, it was stated that the “pretty custom of sending Valentines has disappeared almost completely”. Five years later, in 1929, on St Valentine’s Day (14 February), the Cork Examiner reported that the formerly popular tradition had dwindled in Cork city:

“The old customs are dying out one by one. We are so reminded by the fact that this is St Valentine’s Day, and that few if any Cork maiden will experience the thrilling heart-flutter which used to accompany the receipt of what were known as ‘Valentines’.”

The author of this report – identified only by the initials P. W. – noted that approximately 30 years previous, Valentine’s Day cards were routinely printed in Cork city for the occasion. The writer laments the decline of this tradition and its impact on Cork’s printing industry. The piece also includes a reproduction of an old Valentine card made in Cork, featuring the iconic landmarks of Shandon Church and Blarney Castle (pictured below).

Old Cork Valentine card printed c.1900.
Old Valentine card made in Cork probably c.1900, showing Shandon Church and Blarney Castle in the background (reproduced in the Cork Examiner, 14 Feb. 1929).

P. W. mentions past customs in which men anonymously sent proposals and expressions of admiration through the post, expecting the “fair recipient” to discern the sender’s identity by the “promptings of her heart”.

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On the day before the article’s publication, P. W. scoured Cork city in pursuit of one of these “sentimental cards”, only to discover that they were no longer in existence. At the same time, other Cork residents were also engaged in this fruitless search. This led the reporter to believe that reviving the custom could be accomplished with relative ease and that it would pay the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs to organize such a revival.

Why did the Irish stop sending Valentine cards?

The 1924 report in the Belfast Newsletter remarked that prior to their decline, Valentine cards had come to take the form of “ridiculous and vulgar caricatures”. In other sources, these are called “comic cards”; they were often filled with humorous or crude comments and were sometimes sent to enemies rather than sweethearts.

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While the author of this report attributes the decline in Valentine card customs to people becoming increasingly practical and outgrowing sentiment, another report from the same newspaper in 1926 suggests that it was due instead to “the number of cards of bad taste which were allowed to swamp the market”. A report in the Cork Examiner in 1935 agrees with this theory:

“Good-natured fun developed into open insult, and society raised a hand of protest.”

P. W.’s report in the Cork Examiner draws a correlation between the disappearance of Valentine cards in England and the impact of the Great War (World War 1). However, the Schools’ Folklore Collection, carried out between 1937 and 1939, shows that this tradition had begun to wane in Ireland well before the war.

Within this collection, Mary Collins, a teacher at Moyagher National School in Co. Meath, noted that Valentines were sent up to about 40 years previous, indicating that the tradition had ceased, in this region at least, around the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th.

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Irish Valentine card customs

Also in the Schools’ Collection, schoolboys Matthias O’Reilly of Virginia, Co. Cavan and Louie Matthews, a pupil of Naomh Peadar in Drogheda, Co. Louth, both remarked on how the tradition of sending Valentine cards had been lost. Matthias described them as “comic cards” and Louie’s testimony plainly shows that females were also active participants in the practice of sending Valentine cards in the past.

In his account, Louie described the old Valentine cards as roughly postcard-sized, with the sender’s name written in the centre and with coloured bows of ribbons attached to the corners, beneath which little rhymes were written, such as:

“If of me you often think
Send me back my bow of pink.
If to me you would be true
Send me back my bow of blue.
If you are another girl’s fellow
Send me back my bow of yellow.
If to me you would be wed
Send me back my bow of red.
If with me you wouldn’t be seen
Send me back my bow of green.”

Reviving the Valentine card in Ireland

A seemingly unsuccessful attempt at reviving the tradition of sending Valentine cards was made in England in 1926 by greeting card business Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd when they printed a series of over 50 Valentine cards in silk and satin, embroidery, flowers and lace. These were also available in Ireland.

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In 1935, the Cork Examiner reported that attempts were again being made to revive the Valentine card, but “the response on the whole has been too half-hearted to promise any widespread popularity in the future”. However, the tradition may not have been lost entirely in every part of Ireland as an account in the Schools’ Collection from St John of God Convent in Rathdowney, Co. Laois, hints:

“people send Valentines to their friends all over the world. Valentines are long pieces of paper, with all sorts of rhymes and verses on them.”

The Valentine card was eventually revived in its original innocuous form throughout all of Ireland. In 1948, the Irish Press issued a reminder to its readers on 13 February to post their Valentine cards. In this report, writer Sarah Kelly observed that Valentine cards were swinging back into fashion with stacks of cards available in the shops:

“men may be seen choosing Valentines for the girl of their choice, but if the number of girls buying Valentines at a popular stationers the other day is any indication, I think many of them must be taking advantage of Leap Year to declare their affections.”

In certain regions, the revival of the custom took longer than in others. In 1949, the Cork Examiner reported scant observance of St Valentine’s Day, with little sending of cards and even fewer gifts. However, by at least 1960, even the Rebel City had once again embraced its romantic side, as evidenced by Valentine card advertisements appearing in the local press.

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