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Who Sent the First Valentine's Day Cards?

first valentines, valentine's day history, oldest valentines, valentine museum
Credit: Valentine image via Shutterstock

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. 

Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval poet, may have invented the holiday around 1375. That's when Chaucer wrote a poem called the Parliment 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.

The National Retail Federation predicts that Americans will spend $20.7 billion this year on Valentine’s Day, with around half of the population celebrating. In terms of retail success, this holiday tops Easter and Halloween. Men will likely spend around $340, while women about $64, according to WalletHub. So how do you get in on this spending spree if you don't sell flowers, cards, jewelry or serve food?

You can try reaching out to bloggers and influencers about getting your products included in gift guide roundups or just tweeted about. Pinterest and YouTube can be great sources of Valentine's Day traffic, if you can get the attention of the right people. But 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. So kick your promotions up a notch today. Change your Facebook Cover Photo to have a Valentine's Day theme, and email your customers (particularly men) a Valentine's Day card.  

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