Although the celebration of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to ancient Rome, the trappings of the modern celebration–flowers, chocolates and gifts do not have such ancient lineage. As you troll the card section of your favorite super store agonizing over the perfect selection, you can thank those wonderful Victorians for popularizing the Valentine’s Day card.
Original Victorian Valentines were all about the bling, baby!
Victorians designed unique valentines on flat sheets of paper using such diverse embellishments as silk flowers, lace, seashells, ribbons, seeds, bows, and gold and silver foil appliqués. The sheets, when folded and sealed with wax, could be mailed. Some cards, like the one below, were so elaborate they had mechanical levers that made figures dance or bird wings flutter while others had dimensional pop-up features or unfolded like fans to impress their recipient.
However, the cost of postage made sending their undying affections very costly for the average British citizen, as much as a day’s wage for the working class. It wasn’t until the advent of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840 that Valentines flourished and a widespread tradition was born.
Victorians overwhelmingly favored sending Valentine’s cards over Christmas cards. In fact, so many Valentine’s greetings were posted that letter carriers were given extra pay for the large sacks they hauled and delivered in the days preceding the holiday. The growing trend of sending Valentine’s is referenced in a popular poem of the time, by James Beaton.
The letters in St. Valentine so vastly will amount,
Postmen may judge them by the lot, they won’t have time to count;
They must bring round spades and measures, to poor love-sick souls
Deliver them by bushels, the same as they do coals.
Valentine cards were so fashionable that their production became a thriving business among London’s cheapjack printers. Clichéd verses like “Be Mine” and “Constant and True” were commonly printed inside. Despite their mass-production, commercially produced Valentines still typically featured dried flowers, bird feathers, ribbons and lace.
But the Victorians didn’t limit their Valentine’s Day felicitations to the objects of their affections. Through the mid-twentieth century, Vinegar Valentine’s were sent anonymously and ridiculed the recipient’s appearance, fashion sense, income or social status. Gender blind, the ill-wishes were as likely to mock a woman’s spinsterhood as a man’s occupation. Unlike their extravagant counterparts, these nasty tidings didn’t feature lavish ornamentation or elaborate trimmings, but rather were printed on very inexpensive paper and featured simple artwork and mean-spirited rhyming verses.
For the modern celebrant, exchanging Valentines is just one way to show your love and devotion to a spouse, sweetheart or infatuation.
What is your favorite Valentine’s tradition?