Virginia Mescher

February is the month with Valentine's Day and by the mid-nineteenth century the day was a well established holiday and celebrated by many. Its origins can be traced back to Roman times when it was a pagan rite. In my research, I found that there was not always an agreement as to its exact origins or traditions, but nonetheless it is a holiday worthy of study.

In the fourth century B.C., Romans celebrated a young man's rite of passage on the annual feast of Lupercalia, which occurred on February 15, in honor of the god of fertility, Lupercus. Young men drew a name of a young girl from a box and for the next year they were assigned the woman whose name was drawn. Another source stated that the feast of Lupercalia was celebrated to honor Lupercus, the god of shepherds and their flocks. He is supposed to have protected the sheep when packs of hungry wolves threatened Rome. Still another source related that the feast of Lupercalia was started to honor the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who were supposed to be raised by wolves.

By the fifth century A. D., the Church sought to replace the pagan feast day. In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius outlawed the Lupercian festival, but did retain some of the customs. In place of young women's names to be drawn, he decided that the slips of paper should contain the names of saints and both men and women drew the slips of paper and then they were expected to emulate the life of the saint's name they had drawn. The patron saint of this new festival was Saint Valentine.

The reasoning behind Saint Valentine being chosen as the patron saint of this new holiday is murky, to say the least. There are several legends that explain why Saint Valentine was chosen. One legend related that in Rome, in 269 or 270 A.D. (depending on the source), the emperor, Claudius II, outlawed marriage. He needed soldiers and thought that single men made better soldiers because they were not as reluctant to leave their homes and families to go to war. Valentinus, who was the Bishop of Interamna, defied the emperor and continued to marry young couples. He was imprisoned by Claudius and the emperor tried to convert Valentinus to the Roman deities but Valentinus refused. He was clubbed, stoned and then beheaded on February 24, 270. [Before 1582, a different calendar was used and the date changed to February 14 when the new calendar was adopted.] Another legend has Valentine, while imprisoned, fell in love with his jailer's blind daughter. True to his faith, Valentine restored her sight and sent her a farewell message and signed it, "From Your Valentine." The Catholic Church continued to honor St. Valentine until 1969, when he was dropped from the Catholic feast day calendar.

Chaucer referred to the origin of Valentine's Day as the belief that birds mated on February 14. He wrote between 1370-1380, "For this was on Saint Valentine's Day when every fowl cometh there to choose his mate." In his 1861 dictionary, Noah Webster also had a conjecture on the origin of Valentine's Day. He wrote, "The fourteenth of February is a day sacred to Saint Valentine! It was a very odd notion, alluded to by Shakespeare, that on this day birds begin to couple; hence, perhaps, arose the custom of sending on this day letters containing professions of love and affection." Other writers have also alluded to the legend of birds mating on February 14.

No matter the reason for the feast day, Valentine's Day has been a popular holiday for many years, but the holiday has had its ups and downs. In England, It is thought that King Henry VIII made Valentine's Day a national holiday, but during Oliver Cromwell's rule, Valentine's Day celebrations were banned in England. The holiday was restored in 1660 by Charles II.

People sought to express their feelings on the lover's holiday. The earliest existing card was sent by Charles, the duke of Orleans, in 1415. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and sent his wife romantic drawings and verses. Among some of the people sending valentines was John Winthrop; before sailing for the New World, sent his wife on February 14, 1629 a card; he wrote, "...thou must be my valentine for none hath challenged me." The idea of sending written valentines became such a popular pastime that St. Francis de Sales addressed some of his sermons against them. To assist writers to express their feelings in verse, there were a number of valentine writer books produced. More than a sentimental verse was needed to complete a valentine, so valentines were made in puzzle shapes, hand painted designs, acrostics beginning with each letter of the recipients's name, pin pricked designs, pop-ups and cut out designs.

In the 1830' a stationer named, Joseph Addenbrooke, began producing commercial valentines in England, using embossed paper and paper lace doilies to decorate the cards. In 1833 and 1834 Robert Elton, of New York and Abraham Fisher of Philadelphia, began making the first valentines in the United States. In 1847, a young woman from Worcester, MA and graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, Esther Howland, started a business producing hand made valentines. Her father was a stationer and had imported valentines from Europe; she began to import lace, fancy papers and other supplies and started producing valentines for the American market. The first year she made $5,000 and eventually had over $100,000 in sales annually. She started an assembly line production for the cards. Her valentines ranged from the simple to some so elaborate and delicate, that they had to be shipped in boxes rather than in envelopes. She is credited with making a number of innovations in valentine cards and became a very successful businesswoman. In 1881, she sold her business to George Whitney, a stationer from Worcester, MA. Other valentine manufacturers used colorful chromolithographies, paper lace and chromolithography cutouts or "scraps," and embossed paper.

Not all the cards were sentimental or romantic. When the change in postal costs and policies made it cheaper to mail cards and easier to send cards anonymously, the subject matter also included vulgar and comic or "vinegar" valentines. The comic valentines would ridicule fat and thin people, teachers, drunks and the like. It is reported that some post offices refused to send a number of the comic or vulgar valentines on the basis that they were not fit to send through the mail.

The price of the cards varied. The more elaborate ones could sell for as much as $35.00 and the simpler and comic cards sold for as little as three to five cents. Despite the high cost of some cards, they were readily purchased. In a Virginia store ledger, there are a number of sales of cards, both regular and comic ones.

Period literature, such as Godey's and Peterson's, included numerous valentine stories, pictures, music, games and poems in their February issues but I did not find a great deal of crafts geared to making valentine cards or treats. It is possible that since the holiday was firmly established and commercial cards were abundant, there was little reason to include instructions for making the cards. Not everyone thought that cards were necessary to mark the occasion. In the February, 1849 issue of Godey's there was a piece titled, "A New Fashion for Valentines." It decried the expense of the commercial valentines and suggested that a three dollar subscription to Godey's was much more practical and would be more appreciated. Many newspapers advertised valentines in their mid-February issues at various prices.

The Civil War did not deter the sending of valentines. During war, Charles Magnus of New York was a major publisher of patriotic stationery and produced valentines for soldiers. Harper's Weekly carried advertisements for valentines as well as an occasional valentine plate. The Natchez Daily Courier, on February 14, 1862 wrote, ".... It is said that St. Valentine is yet about, notwithstanding war is raging." On February, 6, 1862, the Daily Chronicle and Sentinel of Augusta, Georgia, the following appeared: "St. Valentine.--The coming anniversary of the patron saint of lovers is close at hand. We observe our dealers in tender love missives are beginning to flaunt their wares, serious and grotesque, from the windows, to tempt buyers. Valentine's Day will hardly be observed here this year with the intense ardor of old times. The Saint has always received particular attention from the English people. Whether the ancient customs of the day are still kept up there, we cannot say; but it is fair to presume that the 'postman' who is deputed to deliver these epistles still trudges about the cities and villages of the 'mother isle,' as Charles Lamb says, 'under a load of delicate embarrassments.' When our Southern land shall again bask in the broad sunshine of peace and prosperity, mayhap the observance of Valentine's Day, and other Saints' days, will be general among us. So mote it be." In the same issue, the newspaper advertised a company that had 20,000 Valentine's for sale. Some ephemera collections contain specimens of wartime valentines and are well worth the search to see them. One such valentine had a hand-painted flower and contained a lock of hair. Books featuring Valentine's Day usually have examples of some of the cards.

It is enlightening to study the history of a particular holiday and come to the realization that some things have not changed all that much over the years.


______________. Beadle's Dime Book of Verses. Beadle and Company. New York, 1863.

Breathnach, Sarah Ban. Mrs. Sharp's Traditions. Simon and Schuster. New York, 1990.

Hale, Sarah Josepha (editor). Godey's Lady's Book. Louis Godey. Philadelphia, various issues.

____________. Harper's Weekly. Harper's Publishing Co. New York, various issues.

Jenkins, Emyl. The Book of American Traditions. Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, 1996.

Lee, Ruth Webb. A History of Valentines. Studio. New York, 1952.

Mescher, Virginia. Historic Accounts: A Study of Store Ledgers from the Mid- Nineteenth Century with a Searchable Database. Nature's Finest. Burke, VA, 2001.

____________. Natchez Daily Courier. February 14, 1862. (Courtesy of Vicki Betts)

Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. Harper & Rowe Publishers. New York, 1987.

_____________. Peterson's Magazine. Charles Peterson. Philadelphia, various issues.

Staff, Frank. The Valentine and Its Origin. Praeger, New York, 1969.

Copyright 2003 by Virginia Mescher. This article may not be reproduced by any means including printed or electronic, regardless of whether for fee or without charge, without the written permission of its author. This prohibition includes publishing it on a webpage except for small excerpts, appropriately credited.