Poor St. Valentine. He probably never had a sweetheart of his own and he had absolutely nothing in common with lovers. He became their saint quite by chance. His story starts in Rome in about 271AD when the poor wretch was flung into prison for proclaiming his Christianity. There, he attempted to convert his captors and his cellmates and even persuaded the Emperor Claudius Gothicus to grant all Christian prisoners their freedom. It did him no good though. First they virtually clubbed him to death and then for good measure they beheaded him.
A century or so later saw the Christian church using the names of martyred heroes to add an air of sanctity to all former pagan festivals. And so it was with Valentine’s Day. Originally, the Romans had celebrated the feast of Lupercalia – the February festival in honour of Pan and Juno – in a style only they knew how. The frolics were X-rated. Suffice it to say that all Rome’s fair maidens put their names in a hat to be drawn by potential suitors. The results were inevitable. Calling it St. Valentine’s Day at least made things sound wholesome.
The practice of drawing names remained for centuries alongside all manner of other quaint customs. For example, country folk thought February 14th was the day that birds chose their mates. In the Middle Ages, lovers exchanged tokens on that day to show their regard for one another. In the 18th century, unmarried women believed that the first bachelor they met on February 14th would be their future husbands, while Dorsetshire maidens left candles burning in their rooms all night, thinking that their loves’ hearts would melt along with the wax.
One of the earliest commercially produced Valentine cards is in the British Museum. It was published in 1789 by J. Wallis, of Ludgate Street, London, and bears a red heart. The verse reads: ‘Believe my love’s without disguise – so let’s marry and be wise.’. The practice of sending elaborate cards does not appear to have started before the 1800s. The improvement in the postal service in 1815 boosted sales and by 1835, the Post Office was recording an extra 60,000 mailings on February 13th. By 1870, more than a million cards were being delivered each year.
Lacy paper Valentines were popular in the 1820s. Many were made using the 18th century technique of pricking paper with a pin to produce pictures. Some had tiny lift-up flaps, beneath which a personal message could be written. As the custom grew, so cards became more elaborate. Velvet, lace, shells, skeleton leaves, spun glass, feathers, gold and silver wire, scraps, locks of hair were used to decorate cards carrying suitably sentimental verse.
Valentines increased in popularity following the introduction in 1840 of Rowland Hill’s penny post. Ready-made envelopes came into use when specialist printer De La Rue invented a machine to make them which he showed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Valentines which previously had been folded quarto size were now printed smaller to fit into the new envelopes.
Mechanical Valentines were introduced at about the same time which kept the craze alive. Tiny figures could be made to move by pulling a cardboard tongue, while another favourite was a church with a front door that opened to reveal a wedding ceremony in progress. Sometimes a verse would ask the recipient of the card to lift a dainty paper leaf attached to it to reveal the face of the one best beloved by the sender. On peeping beneath, the man or woman would see his or her own face reflected in a tiny mirror. Others bore small trinkets, a tiny bottle of perfume, beadwork, shell designs or small pieces of jewellery.
Comic cards were also popular. One appeared to be a cheque ‘Issued by the Bank of Love’ and signed by Cupid. It promised to pay the bearer the entire love of the sender but its appearance, in the 1860s, was but a brief one. So well printed and convincing were they, the authorities took fright and prohibited their use for fear of them being used in a widespread fraud.
The appearance of the cruel and vulgar Valentine card towards the end of the 19th century signalled the end. For a few coppers, it was possible to insult your deadliest enemy by sending a card anonymously bearing a mocking caricature, complete with the most unkind of verse. A jilted man could send his ex a card warning her that she would end her days a spinster. In reply, her card would call him a Simple Simon. Another read: ‘What goose upon goose, you ill-looking brute; you never will me for a Valentine suit.’ Others chided gossips; the girl ‘weary waiting for a beau’ and the ‘Champagne Charlie’.
In fact, cards became so spiteful that by the 1870s and 1880s, the popularity of the habit of sending any Valentine started to wane. By then, Christmas cards surpassed Valentines in volume of mailings. The First World brought a further decline and, despite a brief rise in popularity in the 1930s, they almost disappeared entirely. Finding Valentine cards in good taste is not easy today either!
Pictures show, top: This charming Valentine postcard came from a French flea market. It was posted in Paris in 1904 and cost me 10 francs. However, the real joy is it was manufactured by Raphael Tuck and Sons – doyen of postcard printers – and is worth £30-40
Below, left to right: A printed and embossed Valentine card, circa 1900, entitled My Heart’s Best Wished All Are Thine. It’s worth £20-25
This lacy frippery is inscribed by hand inside it “To dear Annie with Ernie Jones’ very best love”. It dates from circa 1870 and is worth £25-30
A lacy late Victorian Valentine card titled I Love Thee My Sweet One. Inside is the romantically coy message “From D.E.J.” It’s worth £30-35