As I thumb through books and sift through information resources, I am coming to the resounding conclusion that the history of Valentines is unclear. What is clear however, is that this tradition of “A Day for Lovers” dates back to the Roman Empire. Pope Galesius appointed St. Valentine as the patron Saint of Valentines Day in 496 A.D. Saint Valentine was a Roman Priest who refused to denounce his Christianity and was jailed and killed on Febuary 14, 296 A.D. He was known for marrying several noble couples. During his imprisonment, it is said that people would come by the jail and throw him flowers in support of his strong will and on Febuary 14th, the day of his execution, he wrote a note to the jailer’s daughter thanking her for her kindness and loyalty to him. He signed it “Love your Valentine.” So the tradition began!
Since Roman times, friends and lovers would write love poems or sonnets and exchange them on Valentines Day. Many of the famous sonnets of William Shakespeare are said to commemorate Valentines Day. Valentines Day remained a European holiday tradition and evolved during the 16th century when people started writing their lover’s name in fancy script in honor and remembrance of them. Valentines Day is credited with being the first holiday in which written greetings were widely distributed. Valentines became more decorative and artful in the mid 18th century when some people would sometimes devote hours to cutting and pasting their handiwork into a beautiful image. Examples from the time are rare today and only exist in museums.
St. Valentines Day was recognized in Colonial America. By the 1800′s the exchange of valentines had grown. Companies, such as Dobbs of England, made fine, decorative paper for cutting out imitation lacework and for embroidery on paper as well. By 1850, hand presses were used to commercially produce Valentine’s Day cards for the public to purchase. This became widespread in America with the onslaught of the industrial age. Fancy Valentines were produced and widely used.
Esther Howland is probably the most famous pioneer of the Valentine’s Day greeting card. She started out with her family business in Worchester, Massachusetts employing friends and family to sit in a production-like line and cut and paste. By the 1870′s, Howland’s company had grown into The New England Valentine Company and was bought out by a store employee, George C. Whitney.
By the 20th century Valentines had become fanciful postcards to be mailed in wide distribution and the fancy three dimensional and homemade valentines fell out of favor. This gave way to Valentines not just being for lovers, but for loved ones friends and children as well. The tradition of mailing open-face, fancy cards faded in the 1920′s. After WWI, people started using envelopes for their valentines greetings and for important documents.
As we know, anything goes today and people have transformed Valentines Day into a day of giving flowers, chocolates or jewelry. Could you imagine your loved one writing you a poem on a piece of paper and giving it to you on Valentines? Maybe if they were a true poet – but that could also make them the brunt of family jokes!
Here I have pictured, five Valentines from my postcard collection. These valentines date from the late 1800′s to the mid 20th century. Their value is between $3-$15 each. The top card, is of a young man and he has a mechanical cap that moves back and forth as his blue eyes wink. It is probably from the 1940′s. Spread below that are four others that date from 1890-1922. The Art Nouveau maiden in profile pictured at the end is probably the best one. It’ post-dated 1910. It is inscribed on the back with “To Steven, Love Grandma & Grandpa.” Valentine collecting can be an affordable hobbie today. To think that a loved one kept the card all these years and it has survived! Some of the early three-dimensional valentines can bring upwards of a few hundred dollars depending on the condition and theme. A genuine Esther Howland Valentine almost always sells for several hundred dollars. She marked the back of her cards with a red “H” or an H within a white heart. So if you’re thumbing through some old postcards at a flea market or swap meet, bare that in mind! Have a Happy Valentines Day. Best Regards ~~ Edward