Every February 14, across the United States – and in other places around the world – candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones … all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from?
Although there are several versions of the origins of this celebration (see our own history of St Valentine’s Day) it was in the 17th and 18th century in England and the rest of Europe that this evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery and sending greeting cards to each other.
It was from this period that the traditional Valentine’s Day symbols that we are familiar with today emerged – the heart shaped outline, the doves and the figure of the winged cupid. The practice spread across Europe and the USA and by the middle of the 18th Century, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes.
In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the Mother of the Valentine, made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as scrap.
By 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.
Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.
Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, over 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year after Christmas.