The Origin Of Giving Valentine’s Day Cards
Traditionally, mid-February was a Roman time to meet and court prospective mates. The Lupercian lottery (under penalty of mortal sin), Roman young men did institute the custom of offering women they admired and wished to court handwritten greetings of affection on February 14. The cards acquired St. Valentine’s name.
As Christianity spread, so did the Valentine’s Day card. The earliest extant card was sent in 1415 by Charles, duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. It is now in the British Museum.
In the sixteenth century, St. Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, attempted to expunge the custom of cards and reinstate the lottery of saints’ names. He felt that Christians had become wayward and needed models to emulate. However, this lottery was less successful and shorter-lived than Pope Gelasius’s. And rather than disappearing, cards proliferated and became more decorative.
Cupid, the naked cherub armed with arrows dipped in love potion, beame a popular valentine image. He was associated with the holiday because in Roman mythology he is the son of Venus, goddess of love and beauty.
By the seventeenth century, handmade cards were oversized and elaborate, while store-bought ones were smaller and costly. In 1797, a British publisher issued ‘The Young Man’s Valentine Writer’, which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own.
Printers had already begun producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called “mechanical valentines,” and a reduction in postal rates in the next century ushered in the less personal but easier practice of mailing valentines. That, in turn, made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously, which is taken as the reason for the sudden appearance of racy verse in an era otherwise prudishly Victorian.
The burgeoning number of obscene valentines caused several countries to ban the practice of exchanging cards. In Chicago, for instance, late in the nineteenth century, the post office rejected some twenty-five thousand cards on the ground that they were not fit to be carried through the U.S. mail.
The first American publisher of valentines was printer and artist Esther Howland. Her elaborate lace cards of the 1870s cost from five to ten dollars, with some selling for as much as thirty-five dollars. Since that time, the valentine card business has flourished. With the exception of Christmas, Americans exchange more cards on Valentine’s Day than at any other time of the year. Just thinking about it brings memories of red construction paper, and little boxes of heart candies that say ‘Be Mine’!