Valentine’s Day

The Cream of Love. New York: Published by Currier & Ives, c1879. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

On February 14, Americans celebrate love and friendship by exchanging cards, flowers, and candy. Although the origins of Valentine’s Day are murky, ancient Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia, a spring festival, on the fifteenth of February. Like so many holidays, a Christian gloss was added to the pagan fete when the holiday moved to the fourteenth of February—the saint day associated with several early Christian martyrs named Valentine.

The Queen of Love. New York: Haasis & Lubrecht, c1878. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

The romance we associate with Valentine’s Day may spring from the medieval belief that birds select their mates on February 14. During the Middle Ages, lovers recited verse or prose to one another in honor of the day. The Nuremberg Chronicle(published in 1493) is believed to contain the first in-print mention of Saint Valentine, though his role as patron saint of lovers was not mentioned.1

Valentinus. In Liber Chronicarum [The Nuremberg Chronicle], compiled by Hartmann Schedel. Germany: A. Koberger, July, 1493. World Digital Library. Bavarian State Library

Handmade valentines, probably the first greeting cards, appeared in the sixteenth century. Mass production of cards began as early as 1800. Initially hand-tinted by factory workers, by the early twentieth century even fancy lace and ribbon-strewn cards were created by machine.

  1. Lee, Ruth Webb. A History of Valentines. New York: Studio Publications in association with Crowell [c1952]. p.3 (Return to text)

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