No, Valentine’s Day wasn’t started by greeting card companies. Here’s the real story (2024)

Jeff SuessCincinnati Enquirer

This story appeared in The Enquirer on Feb. 14, 2016.

The myth that Valentine’s Day was created by greeting card companies may persist because we don’t really have a clear idea of where it came from.

The origins of Valentine’s Day are rather murky, with few historic facts to support the lore.

The holiday is often traced to the feast of Lupercalia, an ancient Roman fertility festival held annually on February 15, named for the she-wolf, or lupa, who nursed Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.

At the feast, priests sacrificed two goats and a dog and then ran around touching women and crops with the bloodstained hides, which was believed to increase fertility.

Now, isn’t that romantic?

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About A.D. 494, Pope Gelasius I banned the pagan festival. Many histories of Valentine’s Day try to connect Lupercalia with the feast of St. Valentine on February 14.

That is based on an often-repeated claim that Lupercalia included a lottery that paired up young lovers, but there is no evidence of such a lottery, according to Jack B. Oruch in his 1981 essay, “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February” in “Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies.”

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Who exactly was St. Valentine?

As for St. Valentine, we don’t even really know who he was.

The Roman Martyrology, the official record of Catholic saints, lists several that were named Valentine, two of whom were martyred on February 14, but there are no existing contemporary records of these events.

In one story, Valentine was a third-century Roman priest who performed marriages in defiance of Emperor Claudius II’s ban on marriage because single men made better soldiers. Valentine was beheaded.

In the story of the other Valentine, he was imprisoned and cured the jailer’s daughter of blindness and they fell in love. Before he was executed, he wrote her a letter, closing with “From your Valentine.”

The stories are romantic, but not true.

“In the Middle Ages, people made up stories about saints to get people into Christianity and, as a result, some myths got made,” said the late Oruch, an English professor at the University of Kansas. “All the stories about St. Valentine are basically without any documentary evidence.”

How Valentine's Day became a celebration of love

Oruch argued that 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, he of “The Canterbury Tales” fame, was the first to connect love and romance to St. Valentine’s Day.

Chaucer’s Middle English poem, “Parlement of Foules” (Parliament of Fowls), is a parable of love about the mating of birds:

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,

Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make ...

(For this was on St. Valentine’s Day,

When every fowl comes there to choose his mate ...)

It was after Chaucer that Valentine’s Day became a day for lovers.

The oldest known valentine was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, who had been wounded and captured in the Battle of Agincourt. While imprisoned in the Tower of London, he wrote love poems to his wife:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné

Ma très doulce Valentinée ...

(I am already sick of love

My very gentle Valentine ...)

Greeting cards popularized Valentine’s Day

So, Valentine’s Day may not have been created to sell cards, but they surely spread its popularity.

By the 1700s, Europeans were exchanging love notes, which evolved into elaborate handmade valentines fringed with lace and ribbons. In the 1840s, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, introduced mass-produced valentines in America.

“The custom, which has been popular among us for the past several years, of sending Valentines ... was pretty well kept up,” The Enquirer reported in 1849. “We learned that from 1,500 to 2,000 passed through the post office, and there was no doubt, some 1,000 to 1,200 delivered by the ‘penny dispatch,’ and in a private manner.”

Valentine’s Day cards in the 1800s were finely crafted and decorated with lace and ribbons, often featuring Cupid or other symbols of love.

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Here in Cincinnati, Scottish brothers Stephen, Robert, George and Samuel Gibson purchased a French lithography press in 1850 to print business materials out of a shop in Gano Alley off Vine Street, north of Sixth Street.

In the 1880s, they started producing Christmas cards, which helped Gibson Cards become the third-largest greeting card manufacturer. Gibson Greeting Cards even had a store on Disneyland’s Main Street on the park’s opening day in 1955.

In 1921, the company opened headquarters in the seven-story building at 223 W. Fourth St., now the Fourth and Plum Apartments, then in 1957 moved to the former Stoneybrook Country Club, a 114-acre site in Amberley Village.

The inspirational cards written by Helen Steiner Rice proved so popular that Gibson started printing her signature on them.

Gibson was acquired by American Greetings in 2000.

Today, more than 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, second only to Christmas cards, according to the Greeting Card Association.

Thousands of those valentines are mailed every year through Loveland, Ohio, where they receive a special metered postmark. The tradition goes back to 1972 when Loveland Chamber of Commerce secretary Doris Pfiester, the original Valentine Lady, started stamping the envelopes with the phrase “There is nothing in this world so sweet as love.”

After Pfiester died in 1982, her daughter took over the duties and, since 1989, a new person has been selected each year for the honor.

Additional source: “Love Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Many Ways We Celebrate Love and Romance” by Deborah A. Levine

No, Valentine’s Day wasn’t started by greeting card companies. Here’s the real story (2024)


No, Valentine’s Day wasn’t started by greeting card companies. Here’s the real story? ›

Valentine's Day was around long before mass-produced greeting cards were introduced in America in 1849. Hallmark didn't even get into the act until 1913. If you're wondering, Valentine's Day is actually the 2nd biggest day of the year for sending greeting cards behind Christmas.

What is the real story behind valentines day? ›

While the date is meant to honor Saint Valentine's death and burial, which supposedly occurred in mid-February around 270 AD, some historians believe the date could reflect the Catholic Church's attempt to replace the ancient Pagan celebration of Lupercalia — a fertility festival for the pagan agricultural god Faunus — ...

What is the dark truth about Valentine's day? ›

One Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome who defied Emperor Claudius II after the ruler outlawed marriage for young men. St. Valentine would perform marriages in secret for young lovers, ultimately leading to his death.

What is the creepy origin of Valentine's day? ›

Legend has it that Roman Emperor Claudius II executed two men named Valentine on February 14 in the third century A.D. One story says that Valentine was a priest who continued to perform marriages even when the emperor had issued an edict against marriage in order to make sure that his soldiers had no family ties.

Who started Valentine's day cards? ›

In 1849, Howland designed a line of Valentine's Day cards after being inspired by one sent to her from England. Howland's cards, featuring lacey cut-outs and intricate illustrations, were assembled in her home by a bevy of local ladies that she hired.

Who created Valentine's day and why? ›

At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine's Day, and since then, February 14th has been a day of celebration—though it was generally more religious than romantic.

What does the Bible say about Valentine's day? ›

1 John 4:7-12. Dear friends: let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

What is the true meaning of the Valentine's Day Massacre? ›

St. Valentine's Day Massacre, mass murder of a group of unarmed bootlegging gang members in Chicago on February 14, 1929. The bloody incident dramatized the intense rivalry for control of the illegal liquor traffic during the Prohibition era in the United States.

Should Christians celebrate Valentine's day? ›

If that works for you, do it. But the biblical pattern teaches us that romantic love between husband and wife should be on display often and much. It isn't that celebrating Valentine's Day is too much; it is too little and weak. Christians, live your married years so that you don't need Valentine's Day.

When did the Catholic Church stop celebrating Valentine's? ›

Although the Roman Catholic Church continues to recognize St. Valentine as a saint of the church, he was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 because of the lack of reliable information about him. He is the patron saint of lovers, people with epilepsy, and beekeepers.

What is the most gifted item on Valentine's day? ›

The statistic “52% of Valentine's Day gift-givers buy candy, making it the most gifted item” means that out of all the people who give gifts on Valentine's Day, 52% of them choose to buy candy as a gift. This makes candy the most popular and commonly chosen item to give on this occasion.

Is Valentine's day a pagan holiday? ›

However, many historians believe the day originated from the Roman pagan festival of fertility called Lupercalia, an event filled with animal sacrifice, random coupling and the whipping of women; not quite the romantic chocolate and roses day that we celebrate today.

When did Valentine's Day cards become popular? ›

As postcards declined in popularity, Hallmark added greeting cards to its line in 1912. Valentines were added to the company's inventory in 1913. Hallmark began printing its own greeting card designs in 1915. The company's first Valentine's Day cards appeared on store shelves in 1916.

Who was the first person to mass produce Valentine cards? ›

WORCESTER, Mass. - Massachusetts is home to the “Mother of the American Valentine”: Esther Howland is known for creating America's first mass-produced valentines, and all the love started in Worcester.

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