Inventing Tradition: Valentine’s Day

For most of the 19th century, Americans did not celebrate Valentine’s Day; it was a saint’s day that was marked by some folk traditions that were largely left behind in the Old World. However, by 1849, Valentine’s Day was enormously popular and uniquely American. Medieval (or rather, 19th century imaginings of medieval) traditions mingled with new commodities, fashions, and Victorian sentimentalism to create a new cultural ritual.

In the early church and medieval period, Saint Valentine was only renowned as a martyr and had no connection with lovers or romance. The source of this legend is poetry, not church doctrine; Geoffrey Chaucer and other 14th century poets mention Saint Valentine as the divine overseer of lovers, matchmaking, and courtship; presumably, this was not the martyr Valentine celebrated on February 14, but a lesser-known saint from Genoa, whose feast day is celebrated in early May, thus explaining the link to themes of blossoming romance and spring. By the 15th century, the connection between Valentine and love was an established literary convention, and the two Valentines were conflated, so that February 14 became a celebration of love and Saint Valentine an intermediary between lovers. The popular story of lovers sending valentines to one another in homage to the saint, supposedly renowned as an example of Christian love, attempted to join the two narratives of Christian martyrdom and romance, but the emphasis on matchmaking eventually overshadowed the austere religious narrative. In 17th century England, valentines were chosen by chance at parties, following a tradition of nuptial prediction games. The lovelorn Ophelia mentions St. Valentine’s Day in Hamlet, just before she commits suicide, evincing the established associations between the holiday and lovers. She sings, “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s Day, / All in the morning betime, / And I a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine. / Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, / And dupp’d the chamber door; / Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more.”

In the mid-19th century, valentines were so popular that many paper companies began selling pre-made valentines. The first mass-produced, lace-embossed valentines were made in Worcester, MA in 1847, and a new industry was born, the greeting card business. These pre-made, mass-produced valentines quickly replaced the earlier hand-written versions. The holiday also became more elaborate and highly sentimentalized through the late 19th century.

In the 19th century there was a lot of hand-wringing over emotional excess, public crazes and spectacle, and Valentine’s Day was an object of criticism. Some newspapers described Valentine’s Day as a “social disease,” and saw it as an indicator of moral deterioration and loss of sincerity, especially in matters of love (Schmidt). The excessive sentimentlity of the Victorian era coupled with increased commercialism caused many people to worry that love was eroding into frivolity and courtship was morphing into a flirtacious and ephemeral game. Victorian-era Americans were concerned that society was becoming disingenuous, and Valentine’s Day with all its associations with commercialism, the focus on fashion, and the loss of religious fervor, was an apt symbol of the falseness that threatened to break down social bonds.

The February 1856 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine includes a full-page comic of “Valentines Delievered in Our Street,” which lampoons the sentimentalism that surrounded the holiday by exposing the crass, self-indulgent undertones.

valentine 1856

This comic exaggerates the breakdown of propriety in Valentine’s Day through brutally honest, occasionally crass, letters. For instance, the fourth cell depicts Peter Squeezum, Esq.’s peculiar valentine of a devil with the text “How are you old boy.” While Squeezum wonders “What can it mean?” the reader would easily recognize the insinuation of greed and dishonesty. Similarly, Doctor Pergeum’s valentine is an accusation of quackery and Rev. Narcissus Violet receives a $500 check from his parishioners, suggesting his greed and hypocrisy. Miss Wigsby’s valentine is rude and hints at the criticisms of Valentine’s Day that the holiday disrupts the usual restraints on courtship and standards of propriety between the sexes.

The commercialization of mass-produced cards with pre-written messages, elaborate gift-giving of jewelry in the late 19th century (as the jewelry industry expanded due to mining of precious gems in Africa), and advertisements meant to hype up the holiday and expectations led to criticism of the holiday for its insincerity and exaggerated sentimentality and sensualism. Although Valentine’s Day is not exactly a “Hallmark holiday” when we examine its beginnings, in the 19th century, it became the occasion for Hallmark to even exist.

References:

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 12.69 (February 1856)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio 28.4 (1993): 209-2445

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