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.
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”
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.