Recommerce for Lovers

James Dobbins, eBay News Team

A look at vintage valentines found only on eBay.

Valentine’s Day is upon us again and eBay sellers are helping buyers get in the mood for love — with a little inspiration from the past. In January and February last year, buyers searched for “vintage valentines” more than 330,000 times. Sellers are hopeful demand continues this year, too, thanks to the emotional draw of these fascinating artifacts.

“The images and quality of the vintage cards make my soul sing,” eBay seller Maria Watson said. “I would love to keep some. There’s a little pain in my heart as each goes out the door. But, I tell myself, ‘Okay, it’s continuing on its journey.’”

Each year, Maria lists dozens of vintage valentines on her eBay store, Coddiwomple Cards. Coddiwomple, she explains, means to travel with intention toward a vague destination. It describes the history of the antique valentines and vintage stationery she sells. 

“Their purpose is connection, love, affection — usually!” Maria said. “Years later, even past the lifetime of the original giver, their destination is still unknown. It’s also a concept I wish to embrace in my own life.”

Maria sources her valentines from estate sales and thrift stores. One card, circa 1910, was particularly memorable. The front had a sweet image of a child. Inside, the sender wrote, “I freely forgive you this time, but next time will be different.” What could that message have meant? The answer will forever remain a mystery, she said. 

“People buy these to upcycle them for crafts or to make their own valentines,” said Maria. “The die cut cards in particular are so intricate and high quality, with tiny flowers and lace work. It’s amazing the details have lasted — some cards are over 100 years old!”

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A handwritten Valentine’s Day letter dated February 14, 1854, recently listed on eBay. 

Esther Howland and the Business of Love

Credit for popularizing the modern valentine goes to a young woman from New England. 

In 1849, when she was 19 years old, Esther Howland received her first manufactured valentine. The typical card of that time was a DIY-affair, in which the sender would cobble together a scrap of paper, a bit of lace, and a handwritten note or poem. Esther’s gifted valentine — expensively produced stationery imported from England — fascinated her so much she decided to try and mass produce valentines of her own design, and sell them stateside at a lower cost. 

Esther used lace, paper, and collage techniques to create samples and gave them to her brother, a traveling salesman for their father's stationery business. He showed the samples to clients. To Esther's delight, the clients ordered $5,000 worth of her valentines. 

Building on that initial success, Esther recruited friends to work in an assembly line at her home in Worcester, Massachusetts. Within only a few years, she was reportedly selling $100,000 worth of valentines each season. That’s roughly $4 million today. Many attribute Esther’s Victorian-era entrepreneurship as giving birth to the massive Valentine’s Day industry we now know. 

Despite the millions of shiny new cards delivered each year, Esther’s vintage lace cards are still cherished. Museums have acquired fine examples of her work. And a handful of surviving Howland valentines can be found listed on eBay.

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An Esther Howland card recently listed on eBay. 

Nostalgic for Positive Sentiment

eBay seller Robin Ramsey lists vintage valentines at her eBay store Mid-Atlantic Estates. She has a particular fondness for the Victorian-era style similar to Esther's creations.

“With a satin or foil heart in the middle, some cards are really beautiful,” said Robin. “I mostly sell cards between the 1800s and 1950s. Newer cards don’t have the same detail and sentiment — they are more sarcastic in tone.”

The cards Robin lists on eBay often have a signature, but not much else. Lost to history are the stories about the sender and receiver, and how they lived their lives. 

“These cards meant something to someone at one time. They were shared between two people,” she said. “There’s a mystery about the vintage valentine. I think that’s why people want to buy them on eBay.”