Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is inescapable. For some, its the ultimate chance to treat your loved one, to kindle or re-kindle romance. For others, it’s a tacky, over-commercialised, over-priced, inauthentic display, making a mockery of true love. For some its even worse – a painful reminder of their single status.
Where did this festival of romance originate? Valentines day’s roots are obscure, and stretch back into the mythic past. There are several Saint Valentines, but none of them has an obvious connection with romantic love. Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ notes that birds choose their mate on Saint Valentines day. As birds do not mate until the spring, some have suggested that the romantic St Valentine’s day might have been celebrated in March or April in the medieval period.
However it began, like many so-called ‘traditions’ in Britain today, Valentines day as we know it was really invented by the Victorians. Valentine’s day cards really took off in the Victorian period,because of two things: a reliable, cheap postal service, and new paper-making and printing technology. There were a huge variety of Victorian cards: fancy lace-papers, embossed papers, and cards adorned with ribbons, dried flowers and perfume sachets. There were all kinds of delicate 3D and pop-up cards, some with moving parts. Cards came with sentimental poems printed inside, or a blank space for your own. As well as these beautiful and sincere Valentines, comical Valentines were also popular, as well cards featuring puzzles, games and novelties such as fake money from ‘the bank of love’.
There were also numerous little books called ‘Valentine’s Writers’. They provided a selection of verses and messages that people could chose from to write in their cards, if they did not quite have the time, imagination or confidence to make up their own. They had incredible titles such as The New Cupid’s Bower; Being a Poetical Garden of Love, abounding with Original Valentines calculate to convey the Sentiments of the Heart in language neat, chaste, and expressive. They messages were supposed to make the writer sound romantic, creative and original – ironic, since they were just copied out from a book.
One Victorian tradition has died a death though, and for that we should all heave a sigh of relief: the ‘Vinegar valentine’. Imagine rushing to greet the postman, paying a penny to receive your card and eagerly tearing open the envelope to reveal a cruelly insulting card, jilting you instead of admiring you. Vinegar Valentines were usually cheap and crude, both artistically and in sentiment. They poured scorn on perceived defects in appearance, character and social standing. No doubt they were sometimes sent as a joke amongst friends, but it must have been heartbreaking to receive one sent out of malicious spite.
The Victorians put a huge amount of effort into their Valentines cards, but they did not send flowers – they didn’t have heated greenhouses or air-freight, and nothing much grows naturally in Britain in February. Wealthy people sometimes sent other love tokens, especially gloves. Gloves were expensive, and symbolised asking for someone’s ‘hand in marriage’. This coded message also made hands and gloves a popular theme on Valentines cards. Chocolates did not seem to be a popular Valentines gift in the nineteenth century, and couples could not go out on romantic dates together as they do now: unmarried middle-class women were carefully chaperoned, and restaurants were confined to hotels and gentlemen’s clubs – certainly not the sort of places a gentleman could take his wife for the evening.
We may feel that the quaint Valentine’s cards of the Victorian period are far removed our current celebration, a slew of commercial pink novelties and technological innovations like e-cards, but in reality our feelings about the day remain much the same as 150 years ago. The Victorians had mixed feelings too, revelling in new technology and commercial products, whilst also looking back with nostalgia to a simpler age.