Do you know why do we send Valentine’s Day Cards?

It actually seems to be an English custom, rather than an American reason to create business for card shops as I might have suspected!  I have always loved finding things out about our history, so I hope you enjoy reading what I have discovered…


Photo of a heart drawn in some sand, by Jane Mucklow

Sand Heart


Valentine’s Day began as just another saint’s day in the Catholic Church in 496AD, when Pope Gelasius made February 14th the feast day for Saint Valentine of Rome, and Saint Valentine of Terni (there had been numerous Christian martyrs called Valentine though). 

Then we jump to the fourteenth century, when Geoffrey Chaucer gives us the first reference to Valentine’s Day as a time for romantic love.  His poem ‘Parlement of Foules’ of 1382 includes the lines (translated) “…on St Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate”, referring to the belief that birds find their mates in mid February.


Photo of a pair of lovebirds kissing, Valentine's card design by Jane Mucklow

Pair of Love Birds


The first surviving Valentine’s message, and first record of Valentine’s Day romance comes from a Frenchman, the Duke of Orleans, who wrote to his wife from his imprisonment in the Tower of London, after the battle of Agincourt in 1415.  The translated lines of his poem are “I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine”.  Sadly, she died before receiving his letter, and it is now housed in the British Library.  The first Valentine in English is also there, from 1477, when Margery Brews wrote to her fiance John Paston, referring to him as her “right well-beloved Valentine”.  Good news this time, they did go on to marry, despite not persuading her father to increase her dowry!


Photo of a red sweet pea by Jane Mucklow, Valentine's card design

Red sweet pea


Shakespeare makes one mention of Valentine’s Day, in Hamlet around 1600, referring to the belief that the first woman a man meets on St Valentine’s Day will be his one true love: “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine”.

By the 1660s, Samual Pepys often wrote about Valentine’s Day in his diaries, and by then amongst high class Londoners it was an excuse for a party and some fun, rather than looking for a true love!  In the days that followed choosing a Valentine at a party in 1661, the men gave them small gifts – Pepys himself buying his wife several sets of gloves.


Photo of a heart shape made from pebbles on a beach by Jane Mucklow, Valentine's card design

Pebble Heart


The first Valentine’s cards were being sent by the eighteenth century, handmade to begin with, paper being decorated with romantic symbols such as love knots and flowers, and often including puzzles and lines of poetry.  Books of suggestions of words to put in cards were available to buy!  Cards were slipped secretly under a door, or tied to a door-knocker.

Printed cards and hand-coloured cards could be bought by the end of the eighteenth century.  The oldest one in existence is at the Castle Museum in York, printed in London in 1797, with floral patterns, cupids and doves, and sent from Catherine Mossday to a Mr Brown of London.  The verse around the edge says: “Since on this ever Happy day, All Nature’s full of Love and Play.  Yet harmless still if my design, ‘Tis but to be your Valentine”.


Photo of a bee and verbena flower by Jane Mucklow, Valentine's card design

Bee and Verbena flower


The modern Valentine’s card gained huge popularity in the Victorian era, as affordable printing, and the advent of the penny post meant they could be both mass-produced and delivered anonymously.  Many examples survive, still using flowers, love knots and cupid designs, and with lace and intricately cut paper.  The more elaborate the design, the more expensive the card – and therefore obvious how much your Valentine had spent on you!  Non-romantic cards also began to be made: humourous, political, and even insulting versions.


Photo of a meerkat by Jane Mucklow, Valentine's card design



Valentine’s cards travelled to America in the mid nineteenth century, where they were advertised as a British tradition, and became increasingly popular. The company Hallmark Cards produced their first Valentine card in 1913, a turning point in the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day.  And today, it is the second most popular card-sending occasion after Christmas.  All still with the message from the fifteenth century of ‘Will you be my Valentine?’!


All the example photos used in this post are my photos, and available as Valentine Cards, just let me know if you’d like any.  Or you can see more designs in an album on my photography facebook page.

If you love sending cards, why not join my Gorgeous Greetings Card subscription service, and always have a stash of lovely cards ready to send when you need one:

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Pinterest post image for blog on Valentine's cards, with a photo of a sand heart by Jane Mucklow




The origins of Valentine’s Cards
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