History of St. Valentine's Day
Commemorations of St. Valentine’s Day are rooted in the distant past. In the Middle Ages the tradition of choosing a romantic partner on that particular saint's day began because it was believed that birds began mating on that day.
Yet there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the historical Saint Valentine, an early Christian martyred by the Romans, had any connections to either birds or romance.
In the 1800s stories abounded that the roots of St. Valentine’s Day reached back to Rome and the festival of Lupercalia on the 15th of February, but modern scholars discount that idea.
Despite the holiday's mysterious and puzzling roots, it is obvious that people have observed St. Valentine’s Day for centuries. The famed London diarist Samuel Pepys mentioned observances of the day in the mid-1600s, complete with elaborate gift giving among the wealthier members of society.
The History of Valentine Cards
It seems that the writing of special notes and letters for Valentine’s Day gained widespread popularity in the 1700s. At that time the romantic missives would have been handwritten, on ordinary writing paper.
Papers made especially for Valentine greetings began to be marketed in the 1820s, and their use became fashionable in both Britain and the United States. In the 1840s, when postal rates in Britain became standardized, commercially produced Valentine cards began to grow in popularity. The cards were flat paper sheets, often printed with colored illustrations and embossed borders. The sheets, when folded and sealed with wax, could be mailed.
The American Valentine Industry Began in New England
According to legend, an English Valentine received by a woman in Massachusetts inspired the beginnings of the American Valentine industry.
Esther A. Howland, a student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, began making Valentine cards after receiving a card produced by an English company. As her father was a stationer, she sold her cards in his store. The business grew, and she soon hired friends to help her make the cards. And as she attracted more business her hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts became the center of the American Valentine production.
St. Valentine's Day Became a Popular Holiday in America
By the mid-1850s the sending of manufactured Valentine’s Day cards was popular enough that the New York Times published an editorial on February 14, 1856 sharply criticizing the practice:
"Our beaux and belles are satisfied with a few miserable lines, neatly written upon fine paper, or else they purchase a printed Valentine with verses ready made, some of which are costly, and many of which are cheap and indecent.
"In any case, whether decent or indecent, they only please the silly and give the vicious an opportunity to develop their propensities, and place them, anonymously, before the comparatively virtuous. The custom with us has no useful feature, and the sooner it is abolished the better."
Despite the outrage from the editorial writer, the practice of sending Valentines continued to flourish throughout the mid-1800s.
Popularity of the Valentine Card Boomed After the Civil War
In the years following the Civil War, newspaper reports indicated that the practice of sending Valentines was actually growing.
On February 4, 1867, the New York Times interviewed Mr. J.H. Hallett, who was identified as the “Superintendent of the Carrier Department of the City Post Office.” Mr. Hallett provided statistics which stated that in the year 1862 post offices in New York City had accepted 21,260 Valentines for delivery. The following next year showed a slight increase, but then in 1864 the number dropped to only 15,924.
A huge change occurred in 1865, perhaps because the dark years of the Civil War were ending. New Yorkers mailed more than 66,000 Valentines in 1865, and more than 86,000 in 1866. The tradition of sending Valentine cards was turning into a big business.
The February 1867 article in the New York Times reveals that some New Yorkers paid exorbitant prices for Valentines:
"It puzzles many to understand how one of these trifles can be gotten up in such shape as to make it sell for $100; but the fact is that even this figure is not by any means the limit of their price. There is a tradition that one of the Broadway dealers not many years ago disposed of no less than seven Valentines which cost $500 each, and it may be safely asserted that if any individual was so simple as to wish to expend ten times that sum upon one of these missives, some enterprising manufacturer would find a way to accommodate him."
Valentine Cards Could Hold Lavish Gifts
The newspaper explained that the most expensive Valentines actually held hidden treasures hidden inside the paper:
"Valentines of this class are not simply combinations of paper gorgeously gilded, carefully embossed and elaborately laced. To be sure they show paper lovers seated in paper grottoes, under paper roses, ambushed by paper cupids, and indulging in the luxury of paper kisses; but they also show something more attractive than these paper delights to the overjoyed receiver. Receptacles cunningly prepared may hide watches or other jewelry, and, of course, there is no limit to the lengths to which wealthy and foolish lovers may go."
In the late 1860s, most Valentines were modestly priced, and targeted toward a mass audience. And many were designed for humorous effect, with caricatures of particular professions or ethnic groups. Indeed, many Valentines in the late 1800s were intended as jokes, and the sending of humorous cards was a fad for many years.
Victorian Valentines Could Be Works of Art
The legendary British illustrator of children’s books, Kate Greenaway, designed Valentines in the late 1800s which were enormously popular. Her Valentine designs sold so well for the card publisher, Marcus Ward, that she was encouraged to design cards for other holidays.
Some of Greenaway’s illustrations for Valentine cards were collected in a book published in 1876, Quiver of Love: A Collection of Valentines.
By some accounts, the practice of sending Valentine cards fell off in the late 1800s, and only revived in the 1920s. But the holiday as we know it today firmly has its roots in the 1800s.