“To My Valentine…” A history of Valentine’s Day and Valentine’s Day Cards

The history of Valentine’s Day in surrounded by legends and is not a certainty. One common thing among these legends is Saint Valentine, the person after whom the date is named.

One legend is that Saint Valentine was a priest, and when Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those who are married, he outlawed marriage of young men. Saint Valentine defied this law, wedding young men in secret; he was then put to death when his actions were found out.  In another legend, Valentine was imprisoned and sent his first valentine to a young girl, maybe the daughter of his jailer. The last letter he wrote to her before his death was signed “Your Valentine.”

Valentine’s Day is celebrated in February; some believe that it is the day he was buried or put to death, while other believe that the Christian Church moved it to this date in an effort to “Christianize” Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival and fertility rite, typically observed on February 15. The Christian Church under the Pope Gelasius I, in 494 CE, appropriated the form of the rite as the Feast of Purification.

Around the 17th century in Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated. In the middle of the 18th century, all social classes were exchanging hand written notes. In the 19th century, printed cards replaced written letters thanks to the improvement of the printing press. In America, Esther A. Howland sold mass-produced valentines in the 1840s; these postcards had paper lace, real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures.   Esther A. Howland is often known as the “Mother of Valentine.” The Greeting Card Association estimated that 1 billion Valentine’s Day cars are sent each year, and approximately 85% of Valentine’s Day cards are bought by women. In the United States $14.7 billion are generated by Valentine’s Day.

The Oshawa Community Archives has a number of Valentine’s Day postcards in their holdings, and what follows are a selection from their collection.

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