February 14 rapidly approaches, and with it comes the responsibility, as well as joy, of persons announcing their love to others. But how to do it? There are so many ways. Which one is the right way, for the right person?
Despite the confusion of its many legendary origins, Valentine’s Day has flourished and evolved out of love and human kindness, and that, in turn, has led to messages expressed in several different ways.
Some say it all began with Juno, the queen of the Roman gods and goddesses, also known as the goddess of women and marriage. The Feast of Lupercalia was begun on Feb. 15. During the festival, names of girls were written down on pieces of paper, and young men would each pick a name.
Then they were linked for the time of the festival, and sometimes a great deal longer than that, as their feelings grew into love and then marriage. It might be a stretch, though, to call a mere name on a piece of paper a true valentine.
Ever wonder how that underdressed Cupid, shooting his love-inspiring arrows, came to be? Well, the little archer was the son of Venus, the Roman god of love and beauty. So he got his job through a family connection.
In the third century A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius II was having trouble enlisting soldiers for his military campaigns, so he came up with a drastic answer: to cancel all marriages and engagements. You can imagine how that went over. Enter Valentine, a priest who then married couples secretly. Of course, he was eventually found out and beheaded on either Feb. 14, 269 or 270 A.D.
Then things get even hazier. One legend says that Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, and they passed notes to each other through the window bars of his cell. Another legend exists that Valentine was so beloved by children that they threw him messages of hope, love and joy through the cell bars.
It is difficult to pin down exactly what the first valentine message was. Still another legend says that before his death, Valentine signed his last message to the jailer’s daughter with the words “From your Valentine,” which have been fated to appear on many valentine cards to the present day.
By 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius, never happy with the Roman feast of Lupercalia, naively decided to change the pagan festival by having the young men of Rome draw the names of saints instead of the names of women. The men would have to behave as their drawn saints would. As you might guess, this new idea failed gloriously. But the pope also decreed that Feb. 14 be set aside to honor St. Valentine, and that was accepted more readily.
What could be called the first valentine “card” appears to have been sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife, in the year 1415. The card contained actual rhymed verses, not just a message. The French duke had been captured by the English during the Battle of Agincourt, and was imprisoned in a cell in the Tower of London. But he had been allowed to send out his words of love.
The British seem to have taken to the idea, after thinking about it for 400 years. In the early 1800s, British valentines began to be produced by companies, with the busy workers assembling each one by hand. They used real cloth lace and ribbons at first, with paper lace coming into use in the middle 1800s. After that, cold, loveless machines were churning them out.
Esther Howland began drawing and printing fancy valentines in the early 1870s, and these appear to have been the first ever published and sold in the United States. As the cards’ popularity grew, other companies, both here and abroad, began producing them.
Sometimes they took the form of beautifully colored 3D fold out, pop-up cards saying little more than “Greetings,” or the more familiar, but less original “Be My Valentine.” However, the special 3D cards cost more than cheaper postcards, which began to be produced in the early 1900s.
One cartoonist, Richard F. Outcault, produced his own set of valentine postcards in 1904, through the famous British postcard maker, Raphael Tuck and Sons, who had a branch operating in New York City.
Outcault had wisely retained all merchandising rights to his most famous character, Buster Brown, and his cartoon valentines proved extremely popular, depicting children and pets in comical as well as illustrative poses.
Feb. 14, 1906. Mrs. E.E. Worthington of Chicago received an Outcault postcard, depicting a ragamuffiny girl in a plain green dress, long blue socks (one down around her ankles), and with orange, braided hair that stuck out at the sides, making her look like the Swedish storybook character Pippi Longstocking, who was to turn up 40 years later.
Accompanying her was a cross-eyed dog with a huge red bow around his neck. The printed message plainly stated: “This is February 14th.” This postcard was made pre-1907, when the address side was still undivided and did not allow for a message.
Feb. 13, 1908. Miss Rosa Studtman, of Chicago, received a “Valentine Greeting” with blue forget-me-nots surrounding a gold-edged heart. Almira, the sender, wrote, “Dear cousin, We are all well out here, and hope the same of you. With love and best regards to all.” (Try not to get so mushy next time, Almira.)
Feb. 14, 1908. Master Warren Coryell, of Youngstown, Ohio, received a “school slate” comic card from A.W.C. Coryell, obviously some relation. It must’ve been a gag card, too, because the drawing on the school slate showed a kid-like stick figure version of a boy and girl, with the printed poem reading: “To My Valentine. I love pretty flowers, and I love candy too, ’cause they’re sweet and pretty, and that’s why I love you.” (Somehow I doubt that Master Warren Coryell was “sweet and pretty.”)
Feb. 15, 1908. Miss Ruth Alexander, at Talbot, Indiana, received one from Francis. He never wrote his own message (fear of commitment?) and the card featured the drawing, by an unknown artist, of a girl saying “To my Valentine. Willie, after we are married, I hope youse will remain a good, dutiful husband and stay at home nights.” (The boy looks like he’s thinking it over.)
Feb. 12, 1909. John Woodward Cole, of Derry, New Hampshire, received one only signed “Georgia,” a person, not the state. On this card the stamp was stuck on upside down. Back then, there was such a thing as “stamp flirtation,” that involved putting a stamp on a letter in a certain way, as a kind of code to show your true feelings.
This one, being upside down, meant real love was being expressed. The card’s artwork showed a Cupid type, about to eat an over-decorated cake, while a bird flew in with a pink love note. (One hopes the bird didn’t land on the cake.)
Feb. 13, 1909. Miss Myra B. Ford of Flandreau, South Dakota (R.F.D. No. 4), received a card showing a boy and girl on a swing being moved back and forth by Cupid. On the reverse was a much more traditional Valentine message: “My dear sweetheart, I received your postal and was very glad to hear from you. Our teacher is good, only she’s a little sleepy. Write soon. From R.C.M.” (Well, it started out OK, but maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned his lady teacher. What if Myra was the jealous type?)
Feb. 14, 1911. Miss Emmy Zika, in care of Mr. Seymour Guthrie of Riverside, Illinois, received a mystery Valentine postcard from an unknown sender. Shown on the front of the card was a singing girl with attached wings, impersonating Cupid. She had the bow, she had the arrows, and she had … the mandolin? Maybe Cupid was looking for a career change.
Feb. 12, 1912. Miss Grace E. Whiffen of Peotone, Illinois received a card with a horseshoe made of forget-me-nots, resting on a love letter, and the printed verse, “Dear heart of mine, True heart of mine, ‘Tis time o’ year, for Valentine.”
The message read “Dear little neice How are you I hope your cold is better I am well and hope to find you and all the same How is Gramma and Grandpa Have you seen them lately hope to see you soon with love from your Aunt Mary and Uncle Charlie Fisk XXXXXXX Dont forget to write sometime.” (Apparently, Aunt Mary hated to use punctuation marks. She only used one, a period, after the end word, “sometime.” And she had trouble using capital letters.)
Feb. 14, 1914. Miss Mazie M. Miller, of Lanark, Illinois, received a gold-ink-printed “Valentine Greetings” card, showing a man hugging a woman (gasp!) and the romantic printed words (also in gold): “And I’m happier when you’re here.”
The written message wasn’t much better, though. “Hello there. Much warmer. Fine weather for sleighing. Good night for Band Fair.”
And that was all. No signed name. I wonder if Miss Miller knew who sent the card. Or even cared. Yes, nothing says “I love you” like talking about the weather, right?
Many Valentine postcards were sent unsigned. Maybe the senders didn’t want any nosy post office employees spreading love gossip around.
Feb. 15, 1918. Miss Sadie Kent of East Bethel, Vermont, received her card a day late, and it featured a cartoon of a little boy kissing a little girl, with the caption: “A Kiss is never A Miss, but it takes a real Miss to make the Kiss.”
Among the usual chatty news, “M” wrote: “This ink blot is a kiss. Of course it was intentional. Now do be good! I have to be here in the wilderness!” (Which was in Shadon, Vermont.)
This is an American made card, since, during the first World War, no more cards were available from Germany.
After the war, Valentine postcards continued to be published, now with new themes such as “Yo ho ho”I’m a pirate brave, I hope for me your heart you’ll save, And be my Valentine,” and “To My Valentine, You are so neat and clean and fine, You make an ideal Valentine.”
The latter was sent to Melvin Friday of Oshkosh Wis., and pictured a clean boy in a white sailor suit, pushing a toy sailboat. One wonders for how long he remained in his spotless condition.
The Depression cut back on printed valentines, and the postcard type was fast becoming only a fond memory. But love, as ever, endured, and handmade cards were cheaper to make, and could mean just as much, with the right presentation and message.
Novelty cards came on the scene in the late 1930s, and since then, every kind of theme, from Indians to jokes to outer space, has been fair game for valentine use. Now most popular, especially among children, are ones featuring animated cartoons and movie subjects.
Over many hundreds of years, the forms of valentines have changed, but the central message has not. Someone who is liked, or loved very much, must be told so, whether it is by handmade card, or store-bought card, or the latest kind, the e-card. And a nice present wouldn’t hurt your chances, either.