Of course we all know about Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. We have learned about it from our parents, friends, teachers, books and newspapers. But much of what we believe and the way we celebrate has changed through the centuries. Here are some dates, places and celebrations from earlier days, very different from the sending of romantic cards today.
No one is sure who the first St Valentine was. There were at least three St. Valentines in the Third century A.D. who are said to have died in mid-February. One was a Roman priest and physician who is said to have performed miracles, one restoring a blind girl’s sight, and was executed by the Emperor Claudius II in 269 A.D. Another was an Italian bishop who was beheaded, also in Rome, about 70 years later. And another died in North Africa but little more is known about him.
Research suggests the first idea of love to be connected with Valentine’s Day was by Geoffrey Chaucer, best known for The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s. In his poem The Parliament of Fowls, he writes about the “mating of the birds” around the feast day of St. Valentine. That was the start of writing love notes and giving gifts.
In the United States, the first commercial valentines were made in the 1840s by Esther Howland of Massachusetts. How they were made and what they were made of helps tell the age of a saved card. Esther used real lace and fancy envelopes with her freehand drawings. She started an industry making cards with the help of artists and printing machines. Her cards were lavish, sophisticated and expensive.
By the 1890s, there were “mechanicals,” valentines with moving parts, and embossing. Cards became cuter and smaller in the early 1900s, and postcards became important in the 1920s after the invention of the postage stamp lowered mailing rates. Honeycomb tissue that popped up when the card was opened was used from the 1840s to the 1930s, and it is back in favor again. “Penny Dreadfuls,” insulting cartoons printed on a single sheet of paper, were very popular in the 1930s. They lost popularity in the 1940s. Small die-cut cards picturing children were sold on a long sheet of thick paper to be punched, not cut, out. Five-and-dime stores sold packets of 25, one for each classmate and a large one for the teacher, with envelopes for 19 cents. Everyone in the class could receive a card so no one would feel left out. And by the mid-1940s, heart-shaped boxes with chocolate candy were being designed just for the holiday.
You can also date old valentines by the style of the clothes, cars, hairdos, even houses or, perhaps, a phone. Save the cards that indicate a date, like the year of an Olympics, World’s Fair or Disney movie.
This year find a card showing a person wearing a mask — a sure winner years from now when the masks will be long forgotten, or the viewer will be too young to remember when they were important.
Greeting cards are easy to find and easy to store but be sure to use acid-free paper or boxes. You can learn more from the National Valentine Collectors Association or the Greeting Card Association (GCA). The clubs are also listed on Kovels.com.
Happy Valentine’s Day!