This post was originally published on February 11th, 2016.
It’s Valentine’s Day! As the rush for candy, roses, stuffed animals, and jewelry hits its peak, let’s not forget the old standard: Valentine’s cards.
Though the deepest roots of the holiday are still quite difficult to confirm, we do know that the modern Valentine’s celebration has roots in England, most obviously with the poetry of Chaucer in the late Middle Ages. America caught on in the 1840s, “mainly with a torrent of cards”: once printers could readily produce ready-made greetings, giving of Valentine’s cards stateside took off dramatically.
Bruce Forbes describes the old practice in America’s Favorite Holidays: “The individually written notes were indeed exchanges, so that if a man sent a poem to a woman expressing his interest and asking her to be his valentine, she would be expected to reply, either positively or negatively. This did not happen in just one day, so the valentine period informally extended over a week or so as one side composed and sent a note and then waited for a reply.”
The poems on the cards could also be drawn from “Valentine Writers”, or little booklets containing ready-made poems for those who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) compose their own verses. Here is an sample, including two possible replies:
FROM A COTTAGER TO HIS FAVORITE LASS
I for my Valentine have got
A little comfortable cot;
I’ve got a little piece of land,
And other things too at command:
Oh, tell me then if you’ll be mine,
Say if you’ll be my Valentine.
ANSWER OF COMPLIANCE
To my thanks you have a claim,
For the kindness which you proffer:
I should be indeed to blame,
Were I to reject your offer.
ANSWER OF REJECTION
’Tis not land that can impart,
A good temper, a good heart,
In the cottage we may find,
Anger and a troubled mind.
Furthermore, the practice of anonymous Valentines was much more widespread in the early days of the American Valentine’s Day—which made humorous, suggestive, or downright insulting messages much easier to send without repercussion. In 1858, Harper’s Weekly estimated an even split between sentimental and satiric valentines in the United States, with about one and a half million cards in each category.
Read more about the roots of America’s cultural standbys in America’s Favorite Holidays.