Monthly Archives: February 2013

Customs revived: Sending Valentine’s Cards

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The origins of Valentine’s Day, and its associated love missives is obscure. For a day associated with a saint, little can be found about him and although some antiquarians have associated the tradition with the Roman Lupercalia, the evidence is lacking. I am concerned with the history of sending Valentine’s cards. Revived I hear you say surely this an unbroken tradition…well no!

The origin of Valentine’s cards

The earliest Valentine’s cards appear to have developed in the middle of the eighteenth century and by 1780 to 1800 it became more popular. In Devon a writer noted:

“Valentine letters containing Love Device or the supportive and frequently highly indecorous effusions of the rustic Muse’ were sent in large numbers.”

By 1825, the London Post Office was dealing with 200,000 letters and by 1820 stationers became to make special embossed paper and by 1840s, supported no doubt by the development of the penny post, more elaborate  structures were formed: the card.  By 1870s it was widespread everywhere with cheap versions and more expensive ones being available. By 1880 half a million had been delivered.

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A real arrow for a Valentine

What caused the decline and loss of the custom was its degradation. Instead of sending pleasant love messages, anti-Valentines evolved. First these may have been saucy cards much like those still available at the seaside. However soon more unpleasant ones arose, which would insult or mock, such as that described by Hutton (1996). This would appear to be a normal card which one would one and inside would be a long paper snake with the message:

“You are a snake in the grass.”

It was sending of unpleasant messages that overtook the sending of the more romantic types. Soon after the rise in card sending, it was recorded in 1890s that:

“St Valentine’s Day…attracts very little attention nowadays in England, but across the Atlantic the saint is still honoured”

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Ludgate Illustrated News similarly in 1896 stated:

“Take the undeniable fact that St. Valentine’s Day is a day of usages almost wholly neglected.”

By 1914 it had died out as a custom.

Cards on the table…it’s the American’s fault

The first seeds of a revival appeared in the 1920s. However, a more full scale revival of sending cards came in the 1940s, thanks to the yanks so to speak. They had brought with them their custom which like Hallowe’en had survived, probably not being as degraded and soon it became very common place. Now every year we send one billion cards worldwide and the card sellers rub their hands together.

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Custom demised: Forty Shilling Day

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A graveside dole

When William Glanville the Younger, who was William III’s treasury official, died on the 2nd February 1718, he left £40 annually for a rather unusual instructions for a graveside dole. The details of this bequest was to provide £2 to five poor boys of his Wooton, Surrey, parish. However it wasn’t that simply. To qualify for this sum there were very specific requirements and conditions.

A biblical knowledge

They had to place both hands on Glanville’s tomb in the parish churchyard, then recite by heart the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed and the Ten Commandments. That might sound like enough especially in a largely illiterate population but Glanville put even more requirements down. Next they were to take up a bible and read aloud the fifteenth chapter of the First Epistle of the Corinthians and write out two verses of this chapter in legible hand.

Despite being a quaint ceremony, perhaps, Glanville had created a time bomb of a custom. Firstly many boys could not read and write, especially the poor. Secondly, the Parish of Wooton is very small and to provide 5 under sixteen year olds each year would surely have been impossible. This second problem he had foreseen and stated that neighbouring and often larger parishes could provide their youths. What he didn’t foresee of course was that his anniversary would fall upon the coldest month in the year….not great for an outside ceremony! Although a tent was usually erected over it to prevent the rigours of the weather.

A dying custom

In correspondence with the vicar in the 1990s I was told that the custom had only recently fallen into abeyance. Despite advertisement locally unsurprisingly perhaps the combination of cold weather, the lack of biblical knowledge and the attraction of £2 in a widely affluent stockbroker-belt area saw it demise. The custom was moved to June in its last few years…but finally petered out. Reading and writing skills have improved but unfortunately the reluctance of boys do this had not. Perhaps in our more custom interested times it could be revived with adults! Any Morris men interested?

Custom survived:Blessing throats at St Etheldreda’s church Holborn

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St Etheldreda’s church in Ely Court Holborn is a curious place. In all senses a ghetto; a microcosm:  outside the city’s jurisdiction, with its own ‘police’, a beadle and was the first medieval church to be converted back to Catholicism after the Toleration Act.

The church is probably most famous for its revival over a hundred years ago of a Catholic rite, the blessing of throats on the 3rd of February. Now undertaken at a number of other catholic churches across Europe and now in the UK, but this is the oldest. It was introduced in 1874 by the Father’s of Charity who overtook the church at this time.

I am always compressed with the work-a-day nature of Catholic Service, amongst the rather packed pews was a range of people from glamorous society types to workmen with their paint soaked trousers. After a lot of Latin, the priest called the assembled to get their throat blessed, often people have come especially because they had a throat complaint. The ceremony consists of the placing of two large lit altar candles blessed and tied in a St. Andrew’s cross beneath the chin. The following is said:

“May the Lord deliver you from the evil of the throat, and from every other evil”

This was recited whilst the recipient kneeled before the priest.

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Why St. Blaise?

Little is known of the saint, but he is said to be an Armenian Bishop who is said to have a boy who nearly choked to death on a fish bone! He touched the boy’s throat and he brought forth the fish. His cult was popular across England, especially in sheep farming areas because he was martyred with implements which resembled sheep shears.

Let me clear my throat

Of course I joined the queue and the priest place the crosses to my thought an after reciting the pray, I was dismissed. I thought very little of it…but on the 4th February exactly a year later I had the worse sore throat ever, sadly a day too late to have it blessed again and I haven’t been back since.