History Undusted: The History of Valentine’s Day

vintage-valentine-cardWith Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I thought I’d just say a bit about the actual history of the celebration of love.  Throughout history, there have been variations of celebrations of love, but they didn’t always take on the innocuous form that modern-day marketing departments have dreamed up.  Here in Switzerland, 14 February is still fairly similar to 14 March – in other words, just another day in the calendar.  But celebrating love, in whatever form it takes, from loving your spouse or partner to loving your parents, your friends, pets or kids, is never a bad idea.  So let’s take a look at how bygone ages viewed it:

The innocently playful Valentine card started off more like a lottery ticket:  In ancient Rome, during the celebration of Lupercalia, the names of willing young ladies were put into a box and mixed up; young, available men could draw out a card at random, and that young woman or girl was thus won to remain his companion for the length of the celebration which lasted the modern date equivalent of 13-15 February, and was accompanied by animal sacrifices (a goat and dog).  Nothing said romance to the Romans like blood and guts and the smell of burning fur, apparently.

After a few centuries, the established Church realized that though you can lead a horse to water you can’t make it drink; so instead of forbidding the celebrations, they adapted them to be less offensive:  Their version was also a bit less entertaining; they drew names from the lottery as before but this time instead of young women, the name of a saint was drawn to whom prayers would be offered.  It was at this stage that Saint Valentine came to be associated with the day, as he had a reputation for being warm-hearted.  So the lottery for girls continued, perhaps more or less under the table, while ostensibly under the patronage of a saint.  By 1725 it had evolved into a game of drawing lots from two vessels, one each for men and women; their lot drawn was then their “Valentine”.  Not so sure how that worked – there must have been a prodigious amount of love triangles as the woman drew one name, the man drew another, and so on…

Another evolution in the celebration was as follows:  The first man seen by a woman that morning (outside her own household) became her willy-nilly Valentine, and neither could look for an alternative.  The famous Pepys left his home early on the morning of 14 February 1661 to be assured of getting the “right” Valentine, swapping a friend’s wife for his own for the day in a good-natured jest with the four of them.  It was customary at that time to give a handsome present to the Valentine’s woman, so it was worth getting a good one.  Mrs. Pepys got half a dozen pairs of gloves and a pair of silk stockings and garters out of that swap, so I can imagine that her husband did no less for his friend’s wife!

Letters to Valentines began as early as 1479, with references found in the Paston Letters, and continued for over 300 years.  The oldest Valentine’s cards were, naturally, all hand-made; the oldest one in possession, dated 1750, was in the Hull Museum as of the late 1940s.  Many such Valentine’s cards and letters were not kept as they were not worth the keeping to those who received them.  As the custom progressed, however, a clever marketing scheme was bound to spring up.  In the 19th century the commercial Valentine began life in the form of stationery (envelopes were unknown until after the 1840s), the stationery itself folded and serving as the envelope.  Still, such a ready-made Valentine was seen as a proof of failure, as people prided themselves in poems and compositions… they were labours of love, not a quickly-posted printed monstrosity.  So, new strategy:  Some Valentines were produced half-finished to allow the personal touch to be added in, and they were provided with a small parcel of add-ons (lace, hearts, trimmings, etc.) to that end.  In the end, it was hard for the individual to compete with a designer employing skilful artists, and the homemade Valentine vanished.

By 1880 the British post had to employ an additional 300-400 workers on 13 February to deal with the 1.5 million Valentines. (This statistic comes from the Post Office Magazine from February 1937.)  The manufactured cards continued to become more elaborate, embossed, lithographed, laced with studs, birds, baskets, ribbons and Cupids with colourful petals, trellis-work, and even perfume.  But as with all mass-produced items, art decays when it becomes profitable; mass-production caused a huge drop in popularity.  In the mid-1930s a new medium was explored, the Valentine telegram, which continued up until WW2.

My earliest memory of Valentine’s Day was in grade school; we each constructed and decorated a “letter box” and taped it to our school lockers; every day was like Christmas for that week, wondering who we’d gotten anonymous cards from!  Another Valentine memory is from college when I dated someone who was studying Chinese to become a missionary; on that February morning I went to my car to go to work and found a long-stemmed rose on the windshield with a card… in Chinese.  I still have the card somewhere, as a bookmark, and it still makes me smile.  We both went on with our lives in different directions, but I still consider him a friend.

So the next time you choose a Valentine’s card, ponder a moment.  Perhaps the sentiment would be better represented by a good, old-fashioned handmade card instead… that personal touch that will still speak volumes in years to come.

What are some of your own Valentine’s memories?

(For more fascinating histories of holidays and celebrations, check out The English Festivals, by Laurence Whistler.)

Posted Originally posted on History Undusted,



Filed under History Undusted, Research

16 responses to “History Undusted: The History of Valentine’s Day

  1. The Romans also thought that gladiator fights were a great romantic setting! Perhaps it’s a bit like the romance around bullfighting in Spain. Personally, I’ll never understand it!

  2. I agree! :-p Fortunately, Romans have learned… now they’re all about wine, women and song. 😉

  3. One of the most memorable, was the Valentine’s day after moving from Seattle to the rural mid-west. Karen and I met through Love@AOL in 1996 as penpals, where after months of writing we developed strong feelings for each other. We met face to face and began a long distance courtship before marrying the summer of ’97. At 40, I needed 2 more years with my employer to be fully vested for retirement after which we moved to rural Illinois where Karen resumed her career teaching Family and Consumer Science (Home Economics).

    From the suburbs to “Cornville”, aerospace to agriculture, Pacific NW culture to the traditional and religious mid-west was a terrible culture shock for me and the men often kidded me about being the city boy who “don’t know ag”. Ugh. After church service that year, some of my new men friends and their wives gathered around me while I packed up my music gear after leading worship. They asked what I’d done for Karen for Valentine’s day. I can still see them with puffed-out chests and expecting to have “one-upped” me.

    That afternoon on Valentine’s day, I saw several of them at the grocery store, which for the occasion wheeled out a glass door cooler filled with red rose bouquets, next to which there was a display of heart-shaped Valentine chocolates. It was surreal sight as several men I recognized from church filed in the door, past the displays and through the express checkout line with their Valentine’s day gifts for the misses.

    Me? I’m pushing a grocery cart around the store, doing the shopping so Karen, who shopped 5 days a week for her cooking classes (4 per day), didn’t have to shop or cook for us. That was my job. And some of my men-friends saw me there, with no bouquet or Valentine’s chocolates in my cart.

    After buttoning up the guitar case, I told them what I did for Karen on Valentine’s day.

    “I ordered a centerpiece from the florist and arranged it on the dining room table with the fine linens, our wedding china and silverware, with several candles. I broiled steaks, grilled fresh asparagus, fixed us salads and roasted baby potatoes, with sparkling cider from our crystalware. After eating, I gave her a card and sang the song I wrote for our wedding.” Here:


    “Then I did cleared the table and did the dishes.”

    What is most memorable for me about that whole encounter, is how those puffed up chests deflated, gloating smiles turned to frowns and their wives, turned their gaze upon their husbands with looks that could kill. The men didn’t have to tell me what they did for their wives as I saw from the check out line 2 of them go through McDonalds drive through where presumably they bought the “little misses” a McRib sandwich or bag of cheese burgers. Another saw the backup and went to Wendy’s instead.

    In hindsight, that experience probably accounts for the loss of those men-friends, save one who often observed the drone-like behavior common to that community of men and church.

    This year I did something a little different. My beloved is very sharp, alert and perceptive and therefore difficult to surprise. About a month ago, I convinced her to have her wedding ring cleaned and inspected. While with her in the jewelry store, I mentioned to the jeweler that we’d both been losing weight and my ring was loose. “What size should we wear and should our rings be resized?”. He measured both our fingers and I got her ring-size without her suspecting anything.

    I spent hours looking at ruby rings on the internet and found a lovely 14k gold 3 ruby ‘bypass’ ring and ordered it in her size. Anxious to give it to her, we took a walk one sunny afternoon late last month and I feigned a rock in my shoe as we neared our favorite view bench. The ‘rock’ of course was the ring and I gave it to her while paraphrasing from that beautiful passage in Proverbs 31:10-31. It was a complete surprise to her.

    So you want a hoot? While I was wrapping this up, my beloved turned to me and said “this year, would you please get me a box of Valentine’s chocolates this year? With turtles in it?” Hahaha!

    Happy Valentine’s day, Stephanie who spells her name wrong! 😉

    Jack Helser

  4. Those are great stories! I grew up in Kansas, so I can relate to that (dare I say, simplistic) mentality among the men… not all, but many. I went from living in Kansas to emigrating to Scotland and then Switzerland, so when I went occasionally to the States to visit family (past tense, as I am no longer American but Swiss), I either got asked how it was to be married to a “Swede”, or lost friends who thought I was being boastful if I mentioned anything about my life… they rarely asked me questions about my life, even now on social media, as I think it makes them feel like underachievers (which is never my intention – I’m just livin’ my life to the full!).
    Your last comment made me smile; my name is often misspelled here as Stefanie, because my husband’s name is Stefan, and when people see our short forms (Stephe, Stef), they get confused. Emails can be confusing as to who they’re writing, sometimes… 🙂

  5. Thank you for the link – it’s a beautiful song! You’ve got a nice, warm tenor voice!
    At our own wedding in April 1993, we sang a duet (“Only You”), and wrote our own vows (his in English, mine in Swiss German). In Switzerland, after the wedding there is a reception, and then following that is an evening celebration with specifically-invited guests; we were married in Switzerland, and had the evening in Germany (comparing prices, we discovered that one bottle of wine in Switzerland cost as much as the entire meal with all-you-can-drink wine included in Germany…). On the way there, our train of cars stopped in a small town, and I was “kidnapped” after a couple Scottish ceilidh dances (I still wonder where all those Swiss men found plaid skirts!); my husband was given a bicycle and the first clue, and he had to follow the treasure hunt to find me. I was placed in the display window of the local Christian bookshop, and I froze in a mannequin pose; before my new husband and the gang found me, a group of Japanese tourists happened by – I’m now in holiday albums in Japan… To rescue and retrieve me, he had to get down on his knees with a guitar and sing a love song… 🙂

  6. What a wonderful memory that is! I can’t imagine such as that happening in the states. The rarity of such romantic stories here suggests to me that we’re an unimaginative bunch. Visions of the despicable Bachelor series and 10 weeks of televised temper tantrums, emotional meltdowns and group tonsil-hockey come to mind as the American notion of ‘romance’.

  7. Thanks for this, Stephanie. I really identify with that experience. I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut about my former aerospace career, which often triggered a defensive response from the locals: “Yeah, but you don’t know ag”. Even from my in-laws. Such dismissive treatment was a significant factor in us pulling up stakes and moving back to the coast again. It’s proven to be a wonderful blessing for our marriage. In hind sight, it was very difficult for us to “cleave” there while living among my wife’s family clan. Their countless demands and expectations are a thing of the past and we’re really enjoying the freedom that “leaving and cleaving” affords. 2100 miles makes it a lot easier for my wife to say “no” to them. 😉 Not being on social media also helps. Jack

  8. More reasons why I NEVER watch television… it kills imagination cells in the brain (I’m sure there’s scientific research to back that up… 😉 )

  9. I understand, and glad you found a place you can both bloom and grow!

  10. Dublin is now marketing itself as a St Valentine’s destination, because there is some dodgy relic of St Valentine in a chapel in Dublin. As for celebrating the day, I have bought my wife a bottle of perfume and a copy of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. (I’m such an old romantic …) But seriously, we saw the Trainspotting sequel recently and loved it, and she loves reading, so I decided to buy her a copy. 🙂

  11. I hope she’s happy! 🙂 Happy Valentine’s Day!

  12. Even in the mid-1940s, when I was in primary school, I remember purchasing a kit to make valentines which had some bits of ribbon bows and lace that could be glued to the picture card. We also made “mail boxes” to receive the valentines our friends at school had made.

  13. I remember making those mail boxes in school; we taped them to the front of our desks and couldn’t wait to see who’d left what.

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  16. Thank you for the re-blog! Glad you enjoyed the article!

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