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A sign next to a rose saying 'Happy Valentine's Day'

The strange history of Valentine’s Day cards 


It’d be remiss if we didn’t start off by providing at least a snapshot of Saint Valentine. On the one hand, he’s renowned as the patron saint of love and marriage, on the other, epilepsy, plague and beekeeping.

Even the Catholic church accepts that ‘St Valentine’ may be a conflation of two, maybe even three, individuals. In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church removed St. Valentine from the General Roman Calendar as so little is known about him.

The basic story is that he was sentenced to death by Claudius Gothicus for marrying Christian couples. He was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate, Rome on 14th February 269.


Long before Saint Valentine’s Day was celebrated on the 14th, the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia was held on 15th February, possibly to honour the wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus, the abandoned twins who founded Rome. The festival involves the ritual sacrifice of animals, a feast and then the Luperci (men who have been ordained as priests for the day) are tasked with whipping young ladies with strips of sacrificed animal skin to supposedly promote fertility.

The festival concluded with single men and women being paired off to continue the celebrations in private. But in 494 BC, Pope Gelasius I banned Lupercalia and replaced it with the more romantically and morally inclined 'Feast of St Valentine' on the 14th.

The dawn of the Valentine’s Day card

There isn’t much evidence that the Feast of Valentine inspired the writing of love notes until 1415, when the imprisoned French Duke of Orleans wrote a romantic letter to his wife, citing Valentine, from the Tower of London. This lack of cards is hardly surprising, as most of the population was illiterate. However, it’s evident from Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, both of whom refer to him in their works, that St Valentine was a familiar figure in the Middle Ages.

It wasn’t until the Victorians began to take advantage of their literacy and the uniform Penny Post system that the sending and receiving of Valentine’s Cards became more popular, though not all were declarations of love.

Vinegar Valentines

To most decent people, the thought of sending degrading cards to someone you don’t like on Valentine’s Day is strangely obnoxious, but it’s been claimed that about half of Victorian Valentine's cards were either mocking or downright insulting in tone. For obvious reasons, not many of these cards survived but a few examples featured drawings and text mocking a person for being bald, alcoholic, aggressive, indiscreet or even supporting women’s suffrage.

One notable example featured an image of an approaching locomotive with the verse, ‘Oh miserable lonely wretch! Despised by all who know you. Haste, haste, your days to end -this sketch, the quickest way will show you!’

In another particularly extreme example, the Pall Mall Gazette reported the sorry of a woman sending her estranged husband an offensive valentine. It read: ‘In his anger he purchased a revolver and meeting his wife last night shot her in the neck. The woman lies in the hospital in a critical condition.’

The commercialisation of Valentine’s Day

Most of the time the phrase ‘the commercialisation of…’ has negative connotations but the popularity of Valentine's Day is almost purely down to the sending of cards. And for that, we have to thank Esther A. Howland of Massachusetts, the first person to start a successful Valentine's card business at the end of the 1840s.

The mass-produced Valentine’s card

Back in the UK, ornate and expensive Valentine’s cards could be purchased. Some examples featured intricate hand-painted detailing on embossed papers finished with silver lace and woven silks, putting them out of reach of the ordinary day-to-day citizen. So Howland, a talented artist, convinced her father to supply her with the necessary materials to make a more modest version based on the one she received from her father’s partner. They were an instant hit. The profit she turned was invested back into her business, which eventually grossed hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

In 1916, fourteen years after the death of the so-called ‘Mother of the American Valentine’, Hallmark got in on the act. By printing their Valentine’s Day cards from steel die engravings, they could produce up to 700 cards per hour, before they were hand-finished by artists and packed off for shops and stores all over the USA.

Facts about Valentine's Day

  • To put the popularity of Valentine's cards into some sort of context, New Yorkers mailed more than 86,000 Valentines in 1866. Now, 145 million cards are sent every year in the US alone.
  • And in the UK, the annual number of Valentine’s Day cards sent rose from an estimated 200,000 in the 1820s to nearly eight times that in the 1870s.
  • Americans spent over $20 billion on Valentine's Day gifts in 2019. On average, men spent around $291 per Valentine’s Day and women $106.
  • In Finland, February 14th is called ‘Ystävänpäivä’ which roughly translates as ‘friend’s day’.