A history of Valentine's Day celebrations – from fertility festivals to the first cards
February 14th has become one of the key dates on the commercial calendar, with romantic Brits spending an estimated £1.5 billion on cards and gifts (and Americans as much as $19.6 billion). But behind the commercialisation of Valentine's Day lies a fascinating history that can be traced back to ancient Rome. Here, cultural historian Anna Maria Barry investigates why this annual celebration of love is anything but modern
When was Valentine’s Day first celebrated?
From 13 to 15 February, ancient Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. Many believe that the origins of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to this ancient fertility festival. To mark the occasion Roman men sacrificed goats before using their skins to whip women in the belief that this would make them fertile. Some historians have argued that at the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I declared 14 February to be Valentine’s Day in an attempt to reclaim this festival from the Romans and Christianise it.
It’s not clear which Saint Valentine this day was initially dedicated to, as two saints with this name share the feast day of 14 February. Both of these saints were martyred in Rome; Valentine of Terni in around AD 197 and Valentine of Rome in around AD 496.
Many legends have been recorded about the latter St Valentine, but these are most likely apocryphal. These include the story that Valentine himself fell in love with his jailor’s daughter while incarcerated for giving aid to prisoners. According to this tale, St Valentine wrote his inamorata a note signed “from your Valentine”: the first Valentine’s greeting. However, while this fanciful story is compelling, it is unlikely to be true.
The next milestone in the history of Valentine’s Day came in 1382, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his poem Parlement of Foules. This poem contains what is widely reported to be the first recorded instance of St Valentine’s Day being linked to romantic love. This reference can be found in the lines:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery foul comyth there to chese his make.
Not everyone agrees that Chaucer was referring to 14 February here, however. Some have argued that he was instead talking of May time, when birds are more likely to mate in England. This coincides with the feast of St Valentine of Genoa, which also falls in May. Nevertheless, the story of Chaucer’s connection with Valentine’s Day is often repeated.
Roses are red: the first Valentine’s greetings
In 15th-century France, 14 February became an annual feast day celebrating romantic love. Lavish banquets with singing and dancing were held to mark the occasion. It was also a 15th-century Frenchman who committed the earliest surviving Valentine’s greeting to 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, which also holds the oldest surviving Valentine’s letter in the English language. This dates from 1477 and was sent by one Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston. In this letter Margery describes John as her “right well-beloved Valentine”.
By the 17th century Valentine’s Day gets a mention in William 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.
While this was the first appearance of the poem in this form, its origins reach back to Sir Edmund Spenser’s 1590s epic, The Faerie Queene. This featured the lines:
She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.
When were the first Valentine’s cards?
The first Valentine’s cards were sent in the 18th century. Initially these were handmade efforts, as pre-made cards were not yet available. 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 with it rapid advances in printing and manufacturing technologies. 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 Uniform Penny Post [a component of the comprehensive reform of the Royal Mail, the UK's official postal service, that took place in the 19th century] 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 survive, but most intriguing is a collection of more than 1,700 examples that is held at the Museum of London. This is the archive of the stationer Jonathan King, who ran a card-making enterprise in London. This collection, which has been digitised, demonstrates the huge array of designs, verses and sentiments that were popular with lovers in Victorian Britain. 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.
Lucy Worsley visited this collection in her October 2015 BBC series A Very British Romance. The programme featured the most elaborate card in the collection, which was made by Jonathan King himself for the woman he loved. This huge card boasts layer after layer of lace, decorated with embroidery, beads, ribbons and shells. It includes many lines of poetry, and even a secret concealed card featuring a paper chest of drawers. Each drawer lists a womanly virtue, but in the final drawer is a gold ring. This suggests that the card actually served as King’s proposal to his future wife. Happily, she accepted his offer, and this romantic couple went on to have 15 children, one of whom was appropriately named Valentine.
Not all Victorian Valentine’s cards were so romantic, however. The less loved-up were able to buy ‘Vinegar Valentines’ – cards designed to insult. These cards typically lampooned 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. It was clearly very insulting to receive a card like this, which possibly accounts for the fact that relatively few examples survive.
Other unconventional cards were less vicious, however, and reveal the Victorian sense of fun. One example held at York Castle Museum features a shock 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.
The humorous card would perhaps not look out of place in a 21st-century shop, where jokey cards remain a popular choice for those who are averse 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. Advanced American technologies meant that more elaborate cards were produced cheaply, encouraging their popularity yet further. In 1913 Hallmark Cards produced their first Valentine’s card, representing a key development in the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day.
Thanks in large part to marketing campaigns, Valentine’s Day has today become a time not only for sending cards, but for buying flowers, jewellery, perfume and chocolates. And now you know this annual celebration of love is anything but modern.
- Read more: The 7 most romantic moments in history
Dr Anna Maria Barry is a writer, researcher and cultural historian who works at the Royal College of Music Museum in London. You can follow her on Twitter @DrAnnaBarry
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2015