The Long Strange History of Valentine’s Day

It's the time of year when swarms of sweethearts make restaurant reservations and buy cards and flowers for those they adore. As lovers of all things old and strange, we decided to dig into the origins of this quirky tradition. We quickly learned that the story of Valentine's Day contains as much fiction as fact, and features beheadings as well as betrothals.

The earliest history of Valentine's Day is often attributed to an ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia that was popular around 753 BC. Celebrated in mid-February, the festivities included half-naked priests sacrificing goats and dogs and then swatting women with strips of their blood-dipped hides to promote fertility. The party concluded when local singles were love matched via random names pulled from an urn.

In 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius declared February 14th the First Feast Day of Saint Valentine. Whether his goal was to honor a saint or Christianize the pagan followers of Lupercalia is a subject of debate. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church has recognized three different martyred Saint Valentines through the ages.

The most famous was Saint Valentine of Terni. He was said to secretly officiate weddings after the Roman Emperor outlawed marriage to encourage men to join the army. He was rumored to wear a ring featuring a Cupid so soldiers could recognize him and that while imprisoned, he signed a letter to his lover, "From Your Valentine."

Medieval Christians were more concerned with miracles, martyrdoms, and physical relics of saints than historical accuracy. So, these stories likely contain equal parts myth and truth. In fact, due to conflicting reports and scant evidence, the Catholic Church removed Valentine's feast day from the Christian liturgical calendar in 1969.

Valentine's traditions nonetheless evolved and grew more prevalent in Europe during the Middle Ages. In 1631, Chaucer published a poem called Parliament of Foules with the famous line, "For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day when every foul cometh there to choose his mate." At the time, nature-minded European nobility deemed February the ideal time to send love notes because it was mating season for birds. 

By the end of the 15th century, the word Valentine was commonly used to describe a lover in poems and songs. Shakespeare uses it in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet.

The French Duke of Orleans penned the oldest confirmed Valentine note in 1415. The Duke wrote a letter to his wife expressing his lovesickness, calling her his very gentle Valentine while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.  

However, much as it is with antique buttons, the Victoria-era is when things really got interesting for Valentine's Day. The popularity of Valentine's Day was fueled in the 19th century by the industrial revolution, which brought fancy paper production, affordable ways to reproduce pictorial images, and modern postal systems.  

Valentine's cards exploded in popularity after the creation of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840, which enabled anyone in England to post a letter for a penny. In 1841, the London post office processed a half-million Valentine’s Day cards, and by 1871 that number was 1.2 million. In fact, Valentine's Day was so popular that postmen got special meal allowances to help them keep up with the extraordinary exertion required to deliver all the cards. 

Most Victorian-era Valentine cards were flat paper sheets printed with colored illustrations and embossed or laced trimmed borders. Words were written on the sheet which was then folded, sealed with wax, and mailed. Well-heeled Victorian ladies also created more elaborate valentines from 'scraps' like lace, bits of mirror, bows, ribbons, seashells, seeds, foil appliqués, and silk flowers. Lovers express their undying devotion with sappy printed mottos like "Be Mine" and "Constant and True." 

At Grandmother's Buttons, we are fascinated by weird elements in so many Victorian traditions, and Valentine's Day is no exception. For instance, historians estimate that about half of the Victorian-era Valentine's cards posted were what were known as Vinegar Valentines. These were insulting cards people sent to those they didn't like, such as unwanted suitors, salespeople, landlords, employers, liars, cheats, flirts, and alcoholics. 


In 1885, The Pall Mall Gazette of London published a story about a husband who shot his estranged wife after she sent him a vinegar valentine. When the movement to give women the vote gained momentum, suffragettes also became common targets for vinegar valentines.

At the turn of the century, commercially produced cards burgeoned in popularity in Great Britain and the United States. The first American to start a greeting card business was a woman from Massachusetts named Esther A. Howland, who began making Valentine cards after receiving a card produced by an English company.

Luckily for Esther, the tradition of sending Valentine cards was turning into a big business. New Yorkers mailed more than 66,000 Valentines in 1865 and more than 86,000 in 1866. Hallmark entered the scene in 1913, then Hershey's and Cadbury's started to produce Valentine's chocolates, and the modern tradition we all know was born.

This year we’re celebrating Valentine’s day with the special release of ten extraordinary pieces of jewelry, with four to ten available of each design. The buttons in these pieces came from 19th-century stock cards we discovered on a recent button hunt, and their rosy hues–from ruby to scarlet–and ornate patterns remind us of Victorian Valentines. 

The buttons are around 130 years old, making their mint condition and multi-tone tinting truly remarkable. We hope you pass them down as heirlooms through the generations of your family as a reminder of your love.

Read more on our Buttonology Blog: Victorian Jet Glass Buttons, Symbols of Mourning & Hope.