The Dark Beginnings of Valentine’s Day

Early 20th century valentines with lacy doilies were very popular

Valentine’s Day, also known as St. Valentine’s Day, on February 14th, is a day dedicated to love and romance and, after Christmas, is the most popular (and expensive) holiday in our calendar year.

So, when and where did Valentine’s Day originate? The actual beginnings are murky and the Internet is awash with theories. It is believed that the holiday started with the ancient Roman festival known as Lupercalia. It was a violent event that consisted of animal sacrifices, physical abuse of women, random matchmaking and coupling, all in the hope that these activities might stave off infertility and evil spirits.

The rise of Christianity mellowed this pagan ritual and the Catholic Church decided to use this time in February to commemorate one or all three of the martyred saints named Valentine or Valentinus. The earliest saint was executed for freeing Christians from Roman prisons. Another was said to have healed a young girl, the daughter of his jailer, of blindness. Affection for the girl made this St. Valentine write her a card with the words “from your Valentine”, a saying that is still in use today.

This turn-of-the-century Valentine has three layers of paper cutouts.

The third was a priest who married couples against Roman Emperor Claudius’s wishes. Claudius believed that single men made better soldiers than those with families so he decreed that young men could not marry. Once the priest’s deeds were discovered, he was beheaded.

The Middle Ages saw a more romantic, courtly expression of love thanks to the writings of Chaucer and later, Shakespeare. Paper tokens, made by hand using bits of paper, lace and ribbon, became popular.

The popularity of valentine cards in France and England rose dramatically in 1840 when Rowland Hill invented the Penny Post. Prior to this new way of charging for postage, the cost of mailing a letter was the equivalent of a working person’s entire day’s wage. So many valentine cards were sent in the days leading up to February 14th that postmen, according to one history website, were given a ‘special allowance’ for refreshments because of all the additional work it entailed.

This valentine has three layers of decorative paper and is unsigned. Condition is important.

The giving of valentine cards didn’t catch on ‘across the pond’ until after the American Civil War. According to an article by the New York Times newspaper, in 1866, in New York alone, 86,000 valentines were mailed out. Valentine cards were expensive so entrepreneurs like Esther Howland, (1828 – 1904) began to make cards using materials that were imported from Europe.

According to antiques and collectibles expert, Terry Kovel, the most collectible valentines are ones that ‘have clever sayings, relate to the news of the day, or can be attributed to a well known card designer.’ Other popular cards are those that feature die-cut images and open into a 3 dimensional view known as honeycomb cards.

Although this card looks like a Valentine, it’s actually a Christmas card. I’m not sure when / who used a sewing machine on its “spine”

Collecting Valentine’s Day cards is quite simple, as they can be found online at sites such as Ebay, and Etsy in price points to suit all budgets. The difficulty is deciding whether to collect according to type, style, theme, material or era. And, as you might expect, condition is very important and values are assessed accordingly. A card that is unsigned is especially prized. 

In spite of Valentine’s Day’s inauspicious beginnings, it is nice to know that there still remains one holiday dedicated to love.   

Note: This article was previously published in the winter of 2020 -2021 in Discovering Antiques Magazine. Check them out at

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