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Who Sent the First Valentine's Day Cards?

image for Shironosov / Getty Images
Shironosov / Getty Images

Today's the day that some dread, others forget and still others can't wait to celebrate. It's Valentine's Day. It’s generally accepted that the world has Saint Valentine to thank for what has become known 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. Officially known as St. Valentine of Rome (there are a dozen or so others also known as "St. Valentine"), this temple priest was beheaded for helping Christian couples marry. Enamored with his jailor’s daughter, Valentine reportedly sent her a letter before his execution. There is enough confusion about the truth of his life and death that the Catholic Church discontinued liturgical veneration of him in 1969; yet, his name still remains among the lists of the saints. The day was designated as the Feast of Saint Valentine by Pope Gelasius in 496 AD.

The day shares some history with a Bronze Age paqen Roman celebration called Lupercalia. To celebrate that holiday, you people smeared blood on their foreheads and ran through the villages wearing wolfskins. But that had nothing to do with love, per se. It was intended to cast evil spirits out of town, which then would welcome in health and fertility. 

Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval poet, may have invented the holiday around 1375. That's when Chaucer wrote a poem called the Parliament of Foules, in which he links courtly love to a celebration of St. Valentine. The poem specifically refers to February 14 as a day when birds and humans both go in search of mates. But, 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.

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. According to the Greeting Card Association, 190 million Valentine's Day cards are exchanged annually, making this holiday the second-largest holiday for giving greeting cards, with Christmas being the most popular. 

The National Retail Federation predicts that Americans will spend $27.4 billion this year on Valentine’s Day, which is up 32% since last year's record of $20.7 billion. Consumers are expected to spend an average of $196.31 per person, which is up by 21% from last year's record of $161.96. The holiday is projected to be celebrated by 55% of the population, which is up from last year when it had dropped to 51%. In terms of retail success, this holiday tops Easter and Halloween. Men will likely spend around $340, while women about $64, according to WalletHub.

"Valentine's Day is a sentimental tradition, but gift-giving can be driven by the economy," said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

The huge increases in spending can be linked to strong consumer finances coupled with a trend toward people buying more gifts, cards, candy and flowers for friends, family, co-workers and even pets. 

Men tend to spend twice the amount as women. And 24- to 34-year-olds spend more than any other age group, followed by 35- to 44-year-olds and then by 18- to 24-year-olds, so it's important to keep those demographics in mind when you are considering your annual promotions plan related to the holiday.

So how do you get in on this spending spree if you don't sell flowers, cards, jewelry or serve food? Think outside the box. The amount people are spending on co-workers is expected to be double in 2020, at about 7% of the population. And 3% of people spend money on their pets. It's all about positioning your products and services through the lens of love. 

Valentine's Day is one of the most popular days of the year to get engaged. In the weeks following Valentine's Day, be sure to create a promotional plan around those newly engaged couples. The NRF says that some romantics get their gifts for Valentine's Day from discount, department and specialty stores, but about 22% will do their shopping online. To capture some of that, here are 13 promotional tips for improving Valentine's Day sales.

  • Reach out to bloggers and influencers about getting your products included in gift guide roundups or just tweeted about. 
  • Create your own gift guide that highlights the products and services your business offers for Valentine's Day
  • Pinterest and YouTube can be great sources of Valentine's Day traffic if you can get the attention of the right people.
  • Perhaps the most effective tip is to target last-minute shoppers. Nearly two-thirds of Americans don't plan until a week or less before the holiday.
  • Kick your promotions up a notch today and tomorrow. Since it's a couples holiday, try a two-for-one deal.
  • Don't forget the singles in your community. Some 45% of the population will not be celebrating this holiday. To capture that market, you can offer an anti-Valentine's Day special deal to those dining alone, for instance. Or be gender neutral with your promotions. 
  • Take advantage of trending hashtags, such as #singlelife, on Twitter and Instagram.
  • Change your Facebook Cover Photo to have a Valentine's Day theme.
  • Email your customers (particularly men) a Valentine's Day card, or at least send an email with a Valentine's day subject line.
  • Give back to a local charity. It creates a positive brand impression. 
  • Ask your social media followers to share their love stories. 
  • Promote date night activities and products on your Instagram stories to explicitly drive home how your business can help them celebrate.
  • Consider partnering with a complementary brand. If you run a hair salon, try partnering with a nearby nail salon for a beautifying Valentine's day prep for the big date. 

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Peterson.

Anna Attkisson

As official task master Anna loves nothing more than crossing an item off her to-do list, except possibly whipping someone on the pool table. She drives the editorial planning and execution of content on Business.com and BusinessNewsDaily. Specialties: Planning, organizing others, mastering CMSes, editing