It’s almost that time of the year again: The time for us to all band together and mutter about how Valentine’s Day is a “holiday” concocted by greeting card companies to move more cardboard and force us to be constant disappointments to our loved ones.
But before you go writing hate mail to Hallmark, it’s time to get a quick history lesson. While Sweetest Day is the creation of a crafty group of Cleveland confectioners, Valentine’s Day has less capitalistic roots, V-Day cards included.
Yes, long before you were buying Spiderman valentines for your entire third grade class, and even prior to the creation of modern-day greeting card companies, folks were sending each other Valentines.
Here’s how paper hearts, cheesy sentiments and doilies became a staple of this lovely holiday.
The First Valentine
Rumor has it, it was St. Valentine himself who sent out the first of these cutesy cards. According to V-Day lore, Saint Valentine (or Valentinus) secretly married couples in third-century Rome after Emperor Claudius II outlawed young men from getting married, because single dudes made better soldiers. St. Valentine was eventually jailed and executed for playing matchmaker. Before he was killed, the martyr fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and wrote her a love letter signed, “Your Valentine.” BOOM! Origin story complete.
This alleged OG Valentine has never been found, but The British Library possesses the oldest English-language Valentine on record. In the letter, dated February 1477, a woman writes to her “right well-beloved valentine” John about dowries, pesky parents and other romantic subjects.
The Love Machine Starts Churning
For centuries after this, the romantics of the world were content to just call each other “Valentine” or exchange small personally written tokens of affection. Then, in the late 18th century, English presses started crafting cards with Valentine’s wishes pre-printed on them, allowing festive folks to cheaply send out multiple sentiments.
By the 19th century, printed Valentines had become so popular in Britain, large factories were starting to get in on the business, rolling out increasingly intricate and fancy cards.
The finest and most expensive Valentines from the late 19th and early 20th century even included real lace.
Cards started to appear in America in the mid 19th century and quickly ballooned into a Valentine’s Day pastime here as well.
As Valentines increased in popularity they also increased in variety, expanding to include children in the fun with cartoon- and animal-themed cards.
Even hating on this holiday isn’t new. “Vinegar Valentines,” mean-spirited cards often with crude sketches and teasing texts, started appearing in America and Britain in the 1840s and grew into their own business.
The cruel sentiments, which the receiver had to pay postage on, often insulted a person’s looks and intelligence.
Valentines are a major business today with around 151 millions Valentines exchanged in the U.S. each year, according to CNN. It’s to the point that not even the animals are safe from the responsibilities of Feb. 14.
Nowadays cards aren’t the only part of this holiday: U.S. residents alone spend more than $18.6 billion each year on Valentine’s Day gifts, including 224 million flowers, $1.6 billion worth of candy and even more money in jewelry. Sending a card doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?