So where did it all begin…
Legend has it that in the 3rd century AD, Valentine, who was a priest, defied the order of the emperor Claudius and secretly married couples so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. Soldiers were sparse at this time, so Valentine was a big inconvenience to the emperor. Being imprisoned for this, legend says that Valentine gave his testimony in prison and through his prayers healed the jailer’s daughter who was suffering from blindness. On the day of his execution he left her a note that was signed “Your Valentine”.
The First Valentine’s Greetings
In 15th-century France, February 14th became an annual feast day celebrating romantic love. Lavish banquets with singing and dancing were held to mark the occasion. A 15th-century Frenchman wrote the earliest surviving Valentine’s greeting on paper. While imprisoned in the Tower of London following the 1415 battle of Agincourt, the Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife:
Je suis desja d’amour tanné Ma tres doulce Valentinée
This translates roughly as, “I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine”. This remarkable letter survives in the manuscript collections of the British Library.
By the 17th century Valentine’s Day gets a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Ophelia is given the lines:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
However, it was in the 18th century that the most familiar Valentine’s poem made its first appearance. These lines, found in a collection of nursery rhymes printed in 1784, read:
The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
The First Valentine’s cards
The first Valentine’s cards were sent in the 18th century. Initially these were handmade & Lovers would decorate paper with romantic symbols including flowers and love knots, often including puzzles and lines of poetry. Those who were less inspired could buy volumes that offered guidance on selecting the appropriate words and images to woo their lover. These cards were then slipped secretly under a door, or tied to a door-knocker.
It was in Georgian Britain that pre-printed cards first began to appear, though these were not yet as popular as they were eventually to become. Perhaps the oldest surviving example dates from 1797: this card, held at York Castle Museum, was sent by one Catherine Mossday to a Mr Brown of London. It is decorated with flowers and images of Cupid, with a verse printed around the border reading:
Since on this ever Happy day,
All Nature’s full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design,
‘Tis but to be your Valentine.
The industrialisation of Britain in the early 19th-century brought rapid advances in printing and manufacturing. It became easier than ever to mass-produce Valentine’s cards, which soon became immensely popular. It is estimated that by the mid 1820s, some 200,000 Valentines were circulated in London alone. The introduction of the Penny Post in 1840 bolstered the popularity of Valentine’s cards yet further: reports suggest that by the late 1840s the amount of cards being circulated doubled, doubling once again in the next two decades.
Many Victorian Valentine’s cards tended to feature elaborate paper lacework, embossing and other intricate designs. The more expensive the card, the more elaborate the design would be. This meant it would be obvious how much your lover had spent on a card! Typical imagery included flowers, love knots and Cupid. Though hearts were sometimes used, Victorian cards did not feature the ubiquitous red hearts that are so typical of Valentine’s cards today.
Not all Victorian Valentine’s cards were so romantic, however. The “less loving” were able to buy ‘Vinegar Valentines’ – cards designed to insult. These cards typically poked fun at a man’s profession or a woman’s appearance. One example that survives in the collections of the University of Birmingham features a cartoon of a woman with a large nose. Under the title ‘Miss Nosey’ are the following lines:
On account of your talk of others’ affairs
At most dances you sit warming the chairs.
Because of the care with which you attend
To all others’ business you haven’t a friend.
Sometimes men sent such cards to their male friends in order to mock them, with examples featuring taunts about baldness and alcoholism. Other unconventional cards were less vicious, however, and reveal the Victorian sense of fun. One example held at York Castle Museum features a lock of real human hair fashioned into a moustache. The card reads:
For the New Woman! With St Valentine’s Heartiest Greetings and Best Hopes that she will receive another (moustache) – With A Man Attached.
This humorous card would not look out of place in todays shops, where humorous cards remain a popular choice for those who are adverse to romance.
The commercialisation of Valentine’s Day
In the mid-19th century the Valentine’s card travelled across the Atlantic. Cards rapidly gained popularity in America, where they were initially advertised as a British fashion & in 1913 Hallmark Cards produced their first Valentine’s card. Amongst the first Valentines cards from Hallmark included these golfing themes.. the left hand card was created for the US market, the right card for Britain. The kissing couple were considered inappropriate at the time for us Brits!!
Happy Valentines Day to you all ! x
(Sarah Fabian-Baddiel/Heritage Images/Getty Images)