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My Funny Valentine: A Genealogy of Valentine's Day

The history of Valentine's Day and the cards exchanged in celebration of it can help us better understand the holiday as our ancestor would have celebrated it.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Gena Philibert-Ortega
Word Count: 748 (approx.)
Labels: Social Aspect 
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I don't know if you noticed it, it happened around December 26th. Out were the jolly snowmen and the chubby guy in the red suit and in was everything red. As soon as the stores took down the Christmas decorations, up went the Valentine's Day merchandise. What sometimes seems like a holiday invented by Hallmark is really an occasion that dates back to at least the 1400's. And for those of you who blame the celebration of Valentine's Day on Hallmark, cards and gifts were exchanged long before Hallmark became a company.

Who was the man behind the Holiday? Well that would be a man named Saint Valentine, and some believe the origins of Valentines' Day can be traced to him. Picking apart the legend of Saint Valentine and the origins of the day that honors him is difficult. The Catholic Church recognizes three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs.

One legend has that he was a priest who was killed for refusing to denounce his Christianity. Some say he was in love with his jailor's daughter, to whom he left a farewell note and signed it "from your Valentine."

One story recalls Valentine as a Roman priest who was jailed by the Emperor Claudius. This third-century Roman Emperor believed that single men made better soldiers than those who were married and had children, so he decreed that men were no longer able to marry. Valentine believed that this decree was injust so he continued to marry couples in secret. When the Emperor found out about Valentine's secret marriages, he ordered the priest to be put to death. Later, it is said, that Pope Gelasius set aside February 14th to honor Saint Valentine.

Another story about a St. Valentine is that of a priest who loved children. The Romans imprisoned him and the children threw notes to him through the bars of the jail. This legend also includes a jailor's daughter, but in this story she is blind and Valentine restores her sight.

Candy, Flowers, and Cards Oh My!

Valentine's Day cards are believed to date back to the 1400's. In the United States, the sending of paper Valentine's Day cards can be traced back to the 1800's. According to one history I read, a Miss Esther Howland is given credit for sending the very first modern Valentines' Day card.

I love old Valentine's Day cards. I think the cards that they sell for kids today just lack something that cards of earlier generations had. Today's cards with Spider-Man or the Bratz dolls lack the fun and folly that the cards of yesteryear had. Consider some of the sayings found on older valentines made for children to exchange. One shows a chubby boy police officer with a stop sign that says "In a Pinch I'd make a Good Valentine for you." Or a picture of a whale that proclaims, "I'm not just spoutin' off, I like you a whale of a lot!"

The Virtual Museum of Canada online exhibit, "Valentine's Day: Love and Romance Through the Ages," includes pictures of sculptures, prints, and 19th century Valentine's Day cards (www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Valentine/English/1/123/pho.3). This exhibit covers everything from the history of the day to history's great lovers.

Through the West Virginia Libraries Regional History Collection you can view an online exhibit of forty 19th century Valentine's Day postcards and cards (www.libraries.wvu.edu/exhibits/valentine). One of my favorite postcards shows a hand holding five playing cards in the heart suite, a hand that would be considered a "flush" in poker. And the verse on it states, "I offer you without a blush; My heart and hand for I am Flush".

If you would like to give your Valentine a card that resembles one an ancestor could have given, then check out The Stock Solution's Vintage Valentine Art Collections (www.xmission.com/~tssphoto/valentine.html). These vintage cards are scanned and available for free, limited personal use.

For a large selection of vintage Valentine's Day cards that you can send to your sweetheart, check out ebay (www.ebay.com). As I write this article, ebay sported over 1700 auctions for vintage Valentine's Day cards. These would be great for adding interest to your family history as an illustration for a couple's love story, to show what types of items were around during an ancestor's childhood, or to use in a family history scrapbook.

It's hard for many of us to imagine our parents being young and in love, let alone our great grandparents. But with antique Valentine's Day cards, we can get a glimpse of how love was expressed in a different time.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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