Between flowers, candy, chocolate, and greeting cards, it’s easy to get enamored with Valentine’s Day. Often, we are so busy preparing that we don’t give much thought to the history of the holiday. Maybe you’ve heard the story of St. Valentine as a child, or maybe your mind made up something that explains the origin of Cupid. While the real story can be a bit uncertain, it’s certainly a fascinating one, filled with mystery, miracles and, of course, romance. The history of Valentine’s Day is the history of Valentine’s Day cards. Here’s why.
When In Rome: The Legend of St. Valentine
In most versions of the legend, a Roman priest named Valentinus was imprisoned by the Emperor Claudius II. While in prison, he offered to heal the blind daughter of one of his guards. Miraculously, he was successful. But the guard could not convince the Emperor to free him, and Valentinus was executed on February 14th. The night before his execution, he wrote a letter to the daughter he had healed and signed it, “Love, Your Valentine”—establishing the tradition of Valentine’s Day cards.
Of course, it’s unclear whether Valentinus actually wrote such a letter. Some historical accounts suggest that Valentinus himself may be a conflation of two different men (both named Valentinus) executed by Emperor Claudius on February 14th during the 3rd century.
Around 498 AD, Pope Gelasius decided to commemorate Valentinus’ martyrdom by designating February 14th as the official Feast Day of St. Valentine. Most historians attribute this decision, however, to a Catholicizing of the pagan fertility feast of Lupercalia, which had been celebrated from February 13th to February 15th. Later celebrations of Valentine’s Day would incorporate aspects from both the pagan and the Christian traditions while continuing the newer practice of giving Valentine’s cards.
Courtly Love and the Sacred Heart: Valentine’s Cards in England
Batik Heart Valentine's Card from Falling Leaf Card Co.
The practice of passing cards and love letters reached new popularity during the middle ages and throughout the 17th century. Accounts of Valentine’s Day can be found throughout the literature of the time, especially in Chaucer and Shakespeare. In fact, according to the History Channel, Chaucer may be responsible for creating the Valentine’s Day that we know today. In his poem “Parliament of Foules,” Chaucer was the first to conflate a celebration of secular courtly love with the religious feast day of St. Valentine. Comparing the mating of birds to the mating of humans, Chaucer rejoined the religious holiday to its pagan roots.
Around this same time, the classic heart symbol we see on many Valentine’s cards emerged when Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque envisioned the Sacred Heart of Jesus surrounded by thorns. Later, in Victorian England, this same heart symbol would be adorned with elaborate bows and ribbons, creating the ornate lace and flower style we often see today.
The History of Valentine’s Cards in America
The American tradition of giving Valentine’s cards came during the Industrial Revolution, which made it easier than ever to mass produce paper products. A Massachusetts woman named Esther Howland is credited with publishing the first card in 1849. In 1913, the Hall Brothers Greeting Card Company (which would later become Hallmark) began offering their own cards to a wider audience. Through the 1920s and 30s, Hallmark applied all the color to their Valentine’s cards by hand until lithography made color printing possible.
Honoring the History of Valentine’s Day Cards
At Falling Leaf Card Co., we’re proud to continue this wonderful holiday tradition with our commitment to unique, hand-painted, and artistic Valentine’s Day Cards. Whether you like to celebrate the legend of St. Valentine, the joy of love or the spiritual significance of the holiday, we have a card to help you tell your story.