Valentine’s Day cards of affection have come a long way from their humble beginnings in the late 1700s in Great Britain. Here is a collection of antique American valentines from the collection at the Hancock Historical Museum. (Photos courtesy of the Hancock Historical Museum)


Staff Writer

The most popular day of the year to celebrate love is Valentine’s Day, and people often mark that special occasion with chocolate hearts and bouquets of flowers.

But the practice of actually giving a keepsake to show affection started much more simply.

“It all started with a card,” said Joy Bennett, curator/archivist at the Hancock Historical Museum.

According to Bennett, one of the first references linking Valentine’s Day and love dates back to the time of English author Geoffrey Chaucer in his poem, “The Parlement of Foules,” written around 1382. The poem contains the lines: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day, Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (Roughly translated to: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”)

Not everyone thinks the poem alludes to the holiday being Feb. 14, but rather sometime in the spring.

“They think he was referencing more May, when babies tend to be born. It’s the rebirth, in essence,” Bennett said.

Others believe in the traditional February date, tracing its origins to the ancient festival of Lupercalia, said Bennett.

Later, Christians turned it into a religious holiday. While the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different martyred saints named Valentine, it’s a mystery as to which one is tied to the holiday.

“Not that Valentine’s Day is super religious, but with it being named after a saint, I think they’ve kind of taken some ownership of that,” Bennett said.

The first written valentine is attributed to the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415, said Bennett. While confined in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt, the duke reportedly passed his time by writing romantic verses for his wife in France. Approximately 60 of these poems can be seen among the royal papers in the British Museum.

“It translates roughly as, ‘I am already sick of love my very gentle Valentine,'” Bennett said.

“With the way that the English language has changed and the fact that it’s in French and you have to translate it also, maybe he’s saying he’s lovesick because he’s not with his wife.”

Even William Shakespeare makes mention of Valentine’s Day. In the play “Hamlet,” the character Ophelia says, “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,” shortly before her suicide.

Bennett said the most famous Valentine’s poem appeared as part of a collection of nursery rhymes for children printed in 1784 that read “The rose is red, the violet is blue, the honey is sweet and so are you.”

The first Valentine’s Day cards weren’t sent until the 18th century.

“They were handmade because nobody made premade cards at this point,” said Bennett. “They would have just been paper decorated with romantic symbols like flowers, hearts, love knots.”

The cards would have included lines of poetry or puzzles.

“Sometimes they’d write cryptic poems that you were supposed to figure out, and it was a clever way of asking a question without flat-out saying something,” Bennett said. “Then they would slip the valentine under the door or tie it to the door knocker.”

The first printed cards were produced in Great Britain around 1797, featuring images of flowers and cupids, and various verses. The cards went on to be mass produced during the Victorian Era and, by the mid 1820s, some 200,000 valentines were circulated in London alone, Bennett said.

“I think what helped that was a penny post in London. So it would be one penny to send it, as opposed to the royal mail which was a bit more expensive,” she said.

By the 1850s and ’60s, Valentine’s Day cards had made their way to the United States.

“They were advertised as a British fashion or craze,” she said. “And since Americans were very good at industrialization and factories, they started surpassing the British in making the valentine’s cards, so they were a lot more popular.”

The very first Hallmark valentine was produced in 1913.

“Then it slowly has become more and more commercialized,” Bennett said. “And now it’s not just sending a card as a way to kind of hint at your love. It’s more you have to send chocolates and flowers and cards and stuffed animals and perfume and jewelry and everything else.”

The cards themselves have also changed over the years: “Initially it was just a declaration of love, so it would have the hearts, the cupids, the love knots and the flowers. Then they kind of expanded out, so you could give them to your girlfriends or there would be jokes on them.”

And, modern valentines also follow the trends of the times, especially those designed for school children to exchange.

“I remember there were some Michael Jordan themed from all the guys, and the girls would be all for the Disney princesses and that sort of thing,” Bennett said. “I just remember it was nice because you were supposed to give one to everyone, and everyone got one.”

The museum will recreate some of that Valentine’s Day fun when it sponsors an American Girl Victorian Valentine Tea on Saturday. Participants will be making a Victorian-style valentine, and will receive an antique valentine as a favor.

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The practice of celebrating Valentine’s Day is a big business today.

• According to, approximately 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged annually, not including packaged children’s valentines for classroom exchanges. This makes Valentine’s Day the second-largest holiday for giving greeting cards, behind Christmas.

• The National Retail Federation reports that the average person celebrating Valentine’s Day spent $143 in 2018.

• 80 percent of Americans say they plan to share chocolate and candy with friends, family and loved ones during the Valentine season, according to a survey conducted by the National Confectioners Association.

• Americans are also expected to spend $2 billion on flowers, the National Retail Federation states. Roses are the favored flower, with the Society of American Florists estimating that 250 million roses are produced for the day.