Giving a card to your sweetheart on February 14 has become second nature for many, as has giving the traditional gifts of flowers and chocolates. Have you ever wondered how the valentine-giving all began? Here’s the story behind the cards we send to our loved ones each year.
Although the exact origin of Valentine’s Day is lost amid lore and legends, theories tie the romantic holiday to both “Lupercalia,” a Roman festival of fertility that would have fallen on February 15, and a man named Valentinus or Valentine who was sainted by the Roman Catholic Church for whom the February 14 holiday was officially named around 498 A.D. Some legends say St. Valentine even sent the first “valentine” greeting himself, but it is a matter of speculation.
The oldest surviving written valentine was scribed by a young French nobleman by the name of Charles of Valois, also called Charles, Duke of Orleans. It was in the form of a love poem written to his wife in the 1400s while he was held as a prisoner of war in England after being wounded and captured in the Battle of Agincourt. Tragically, he remained a prisoner for nearly a quarter of a century, and his wife, to whom he wrote many poems including the valentine note, died before his release. The valentine poem remains a part of the British Library’s manuscript collection.
The exchange of valentines, in the form of handwritten notes jotted on plain paper, became particularly popular during the 1700s. Handwritten notes were soon replaced with printed cards after the emergence of fancier papers and printing technology in England and the United States by the end of the century. Manufactured cards took hold in Britain in the 1840s with the standardization of postal rates. The decorative cards were flat and foldable for mailing, and were sealed with wax before being sent. The most elaborate valentines were created during the Victorian era, adorned with embossing and made with delicate paper lace, which resembled real lace.
An English valentine card apparently made its way across the Atlantic to the United States, and into the hands of a young woman named Esther Howland who was so enamored of the card that she endeavored to copy it and create her own. Her cards, which she advertised in the daily paper in Worcester, Massachusetts caught on in popularity and she became one of the first producers of commercially-made valentine cards in the United States.
Now that you know a bit about how valentine cards came about, you can put even more thought into sending them out.