Happy Valentine’s day

A 1920s Valentine card
A 1920s Valentine card

It’s Valentine’s Day today which, after Christmas, is the biggest card sending day of the year.

Like other celebrations, Valentine’s Day has very long history; however no-one seems to be sure of its origin.

There were many early Christian martyrs named Valentine three of whom were remembered on 14 February:

  • St Valentine of Rome who died around 270AD in a Roman prison.  One legend says he continued to perform marriage ceremonies after they were banned by the emperor (who wanted to increase the number of bachelors, as they were supposed to make better soldiers than married men).  Another legend says he died for refusing to give up his faith.  A third legend says he gave a note to a young woman (a jailers daughter in some versions), signed “Your Valentine”.
  • St Valentine of Terni, who is said to have been killed during the persecution of Emperor Aurelian.  A bishop who performed miracles, healed people, and was persecuted and beheaded around 170AD.
  • A third St Valentine was martyred in Africa with a number of companions.

Another possible source of inspiration is an ancient Roman fertility festival Lupercalia, which used to be celebrated on 15 February.  In medieval times people believed that the middle of February was when birds started their mating season.

Whatever its origins, the oldest known valentine still in existence today is a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.

In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be celebrated widely around the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes – so much so that in 1835 the secretary of the Post office in England was complaining about an additional 50-60,000 letters being sent.

The introduction of the Penny Post in 1840 made it possible for more people to afford to send items through the post. Valentine card production became big business and cards sent during this period were often beautifully made and decorated.

In the United States the first commercial valentines, made of embossed paper and lace, were sold in the 1840s by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts whose father operated a large book and stationery shop.

Some local traditions have grown up in Britain:

  • Jack Valentine disappears into thin air after knocking at the door and leaving gifts in Norfolk. Children are as likely as adults to receive a visit.
  • According to Welsh folklore, ornately carved lovespoons were traditionally made from a single piece of wood by a young man as a token for his sweetheart to show his affection and intentions. Each segment of a lovespoon can have different symbols, and each symbol has a different meaning.  Sailors would often carve love spoons during their long journeys, which is why anchors were often incorporated.

If you’ve ever wondered why some gifts are supposed to be romantic here are a few pointers:

  • Lace is apparently romantic because women’s handkerchiefs used to have lace around the edges. If a woman was interested in a man, she’d drop her handkerchief, allowing him to pick it up and giving them an excuse for formal introductions.
  • The romance of flowers has its roots in their use as a language, a fashion popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Each flower would have a meaning: violets – modesty, faithfulness; yellow tulip – hopeless love; snowdrop – hope; red rose – I love you; daisy – innocence, loyal love.
  • Chocolate is supposed to have various effects, ranging from inducing happiness to acting as an aphrodisiac.  This is an exaggeration. Chocolate does contain some compounds that are linked to feelings of love, but the digestive process hugely reduces their effectiveness!

To find out more or see examples of antique valentines try:

And if all of this is a bit too sickly, The National Archives has a piece about a crime of love at Huntingdonshire archives.


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