It’s generally accepted that the world has Saint Valentine to thank for what has become known, by many a forgetful husband, as a “Hallmark holiday.” But the stories behind the real first Valentine are more interesting than you might guess.
While there’s some debate about who first sent a V-Day missive, some sources say the down-and-out Saint Valentine himself actually sent the first valentine. Enamored with his jailor’s daughter, Valentine sent her a letter before his execution. And the British Library in London holds the oldest known surviving valentine, a poem composed in French in 1415 by Charles Duke of Orleans to his wife, which he sent while imprisoned in the Tower of London.
And lest one think that only incarcerated men were once capable of sending love notes, the British Library also possesses the oldest known valentine in the English language, a poem composed in 1477 by a woman named Margery Brews to her fickle fiancé.
But the majority of historic valentines still in existence today came from European lovers in the Victorian period, and were handmade and hand-printed monstrosities, quite unlike the mass-produced, and relatively slender, greeting cards of the current era.
The European tradition of postmarking love letters in February allegedly traveled across the pond thanks to one Esther Howland, a native of Worcester, Mass., who graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847.
The enterprising Howland is credited with starting the Valentine’s Day card industry in the United States, growing what started out as a small, homemade card business into a thriving enterprise that earned $100,000 in revenues annually. Many of the cards made by Howland’s New England Valentine Co. are still available for viewing by the public.
But the sentiment of Howland’s cards is about all that’s stayed the same since the latter part of the 19th century. Today’s Valentine’s Day industry has grown from a greeting-card company’s dream to a boon for businesses of all kinds.
The National Retail Federation predicts that the average American will spend $13.33 this year on Valentine’s Day cards alone. And 62 percent of consumers plan on spending up to $100 this Feb. 14 on Valentine’s Day gifts for loved ones.