Will the real St. Valentine please stand up? Who sent the first Valentine’s Day card?


According to legend, the first Valentine greeting was sent by St. Valentine himself. Actually, there are at least three “St. Valentines,” each clamoring to be recognized as the day’s patron saint, but here’s the most romantic story:

Vintage Valentine's Day cardsAviation-themed child’s valentine, 1930s–$15 to $20

A third-century clergyman, this Valentine was imprisoned for performing marriages in defiance of Emperor Claudius II, who’d decreed that all men of military age must remain single. While in prison, Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, declaring his feelings in a note signed “from your Valentine.” Since Valentine was eventually beheaded, the story lacks a happy ending, but nonetheless, a tradition was born.

The oldest-known written valentine dates from 1415, a poem the Duke of Orleans sent to his wife, while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Shortly thereafter, King Henry V began sending valentines to his favorite, Catherine of Valois, although Henry hired a professional poet to do the actual writing.

Sexy Jean Harlow Valentine's Day cardSexy Jean Harlow Valentine’s Day card, circa 1930s: $15-20

By the 1700s, kings and dukes weren’t the only ones dispensing valentines. Each February 14, handwritten ‘Valentine’ messages made their way across all levels of society, often accompanied by small gifts. The dawn of mass printing and inexpensive postal rates meant that, by the early 1800s, just about anyone who wanted to could send, (and hopefully, receive), a valentine.

In the 1840s, ready-made valentines swept the United States, thanks to Esther A. Howland, (now hailed by grateful retailers as the “Mother of the Valentineî). Her creations were quite lavish, incorporating ribbon, lace, and colorful bits of material.

Nowadays, the Greeting Card Association notes that over 1 billion valentines are sent annually, vs. 2.5 billion Christmas cards; 85 percent of all valentines are purchased by women.

Vintage Valentines are increasingly popular with today’s collectors, who enjoy their colorful visuals, whimsical themes, and, in some cases, varied functions (for instance, pop-up, or moving-part valentines). Displayed singly or framed in a montage, vintage Valentines add a touch of retro charm to any décor, and are guaranteed to rekindle plenty of nostalgic memories.

Donald-Brian Johnson is an author and lecturer specializing in Mid-Twentieth century design.

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