The Story Of Valentine’s Day, Love Don’t Whine!

The fascinating evolution of Valentine's Day from medieval England to Esther Howland's commercial revolution culminates in its modern $21.8 billion industry. Despite criticism, the holiday's enduring allure draws millions worldwide into both cynicism and celebration of romance.

February 14, 2024 05:07 EDT
Dear FO° Reader, 

It’s time for the annual “Valentine’s Day has become over-commercialized” whine. Actually, no one can remember a time when it wasn’t. Unless, of course, they were miraculously around when Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) wrote his dream poem Parliament of Fowls, which tells of birds choosing their mates: For this was on Saint Valentine’s day/When every fowl comes there his mate to take/Of every species that men know.”

The Parliament of Birds, an 18th-century oil painting by Karl Wilhelm de Hamilton

In the 14th century, the English used to swap notes with a few lines of rhyme expressing their affections, probably way before Chaucer. The practice wasn’t widespread: literacy rates in England were so low, most lovers wouldn’t be able to write. Members of the upper classes, such as the aristocracy, the clergy and wealthy merchants, were more likely to be educated and literate. So, they may have engaged in the yearly exchange, but it couldn’t have appealed to most of the population.

From Roman roots to modern times

The custom probably has deep origins in Roman traditions and Christian martyrdom. Written or illustrated love notes might have been associated with a Roman celebration known as Lupercalia, an ancient pastoral festival held yearly on February 15, which honored fertility and purification. It wasn’t explicitly a festival of love: Priests known as Luperci dressed in goat skins and ceremonially sacrificed a goat and a dog. The priests would then skin the goat and use strips of its hide to whip women in order to purify them, thus safeguarding their fertility. So, it wasn’t a romantic festival – more of an S&M gala by the sound of it.

Lupercalia survived for centuries possibly until the 5th century AD. When Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, the Church sought to Christianize pagan festivals by assigning new meanings to them. In the case of Lupercalia, the Catholic Church decided on February 14 and 15 to commemorate St. Valentine, a Christian martyr executed on February 14 in the 3rd century AD. How this became an occasion for expressing romantic love — represented by Romans as Cupid, of course — isn’t clear, but the convergence arrived sometime in the High Middle Ages (11th to 14th century).

Charles d’Orléans wrote his poems during the 15th century when imprisoned in the Tower of London as a prisoner of war following the Battle of Agincourt.  His verse usually known as A Farewell to Love has the line, “I am already sick of love/My very gentle Valentine.”

Even if the ritualistic proclamation of romantic love has a long ancestry, it doesn’t explain how it got converted into an industry: Exactly when were the scribbled notes and goat’s skin lashes replaced by Grand Cru champagne, extravagant bouquets of roses and heart-shaped boxes of over-priced Belgian chocolates?

Esther Howland Valentine card, “Affection” ca. 1870s, Wikicommons

Esther Howland (1828–1904) was a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, living in Worcester, Massachusetts, and occasionally working in her father’s shop. Her dad — a man with the unlikely name Southworth — owned a bookstore with shelves full of hymn books and scriptural texts. He also stocked some fussy, embossed and padded cards ornamented with ribbons that people used to send on special occasions. Esther must have had a lightbulb moment and adapted some of the cards so they functioned as tokens of love and could be swapped by couples every February 14.

She hawked prototypes around Boston (only 50 miles away) and further afield in New York. The cards caught on and Howland created the New England Valentine Co, which, by the 1860s, was turning over between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, at a time when factory workers, particularly in industries like textiles, might have earned around $0.75 to $1.25 per day. The habit of buying and exchanging consumable items to express our feelings about others and ourselves began around this time. It was conspicuous consumption. Valentine’s gifts were not barter or functional exchanges but symbol-laden presentations.

Howland’s competitors emerged and in 1881, she was bought out by one of them named  George C. Whitney. By this stage, Howland had replaced her earlier hand-made cards with mass produced items, probably not so different from the ones we see today. She may not have single handedly introduced the modern version of Valentine’s Day, but she helped launch a special time every year when 145 million cards trade hands.

Love in the time of capitalism

The Boston Globe described Howland as the “pioneer maker of valentines.” And, in this sense, she is as much a personification of the American spirit of capitalism as John Rockefeller (1839-1937), Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) or Henry Ford (1863-1947). Rockefeller bequeathed us oil, Carnegie steel and Ford automobiles. Valentine’s Day has a quite different kind of legacy. Some might argue Rockefeller and company’s bestowals are all of dubious value, while Howland’s is uniformly accepted as beneficial. I won’t argue with that, though spending money on non-refundable, single-use, photodegradable superfluities that last no more than a day or so may strike some as the epitome of disposability.

And the spend?  $21.8 billion in the USA alone, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), in 2021. This includes jewelry, flowers, candy, greeting cards, and dining out. Chocolates and flowers are top sellers on Valentine’s Day. In the United Kingdom, the spending for Valentine’s Day is also substantial. According to a report from Finder UK, Brits spent an estimated £926 million (around $1.2 billion) on Valentine’s Day in 2021.  

Is anyone immune to Valentine’s Day? Even the multitude that complain of the crass commercialization of what was once apparently a near-religious rite stifle their groans and capitulate. That includes me, by the way: As the big day approaches, I find myself drawn toward a bogus ritual I know I should dismiss. Valentine’s Day, with its commodified charm and gentle pressure to spend exorbitantly on inessential items, has always left me skeptical. Yet, here I am, succumbing to the allure of the occasion.

It’s probably the contagion of faux affection and the irresistible pull that make it impossible to resist. But what’s the alternative? Stay at home, sulk and disparage the corporate world that unfailingly sucks us in? That’s a possibility. But I prefer a night at the ballet, abandoning myself to the story of a cursed princess who falls into a deep sleep that can only be broken by true love’s kiss and who is awakened after 100 years by the caress of a prince. Not even cynics can resist the enchanting mix of love, fate and the triumph of Cupid offered by The Sleeping Beauty.

Prince Florimund finds the Sleeping Beauty – Project Gutenberg etext 19993, Wikipedia

So, on this Valentine’s Day, we invite you to fall in love with Fair Observer. We are a motley group of people around the world providing you with perspectives from around the world. Unlike social media, all perspectives are fact-checked and well-reasoned. We are crowdsourced, crowdedited and crowdfunded. Find out something you love and let us work on it together.

In my case, I have fallen in love with timelines. I have created many and invite you to check them out here. So let’s keep our hearts alive and ready for new endeavors. 

Yours sincerely,

Ellis Cashmore
We are an independent nonprofit organization. We do not have a paywall or ads. We believe news must be free for everyone from Detroit to Dakar. Yet servers, images, newsletters, web developers and editors cost money. So, please become a recurring donor to keep Fair Observer free, fair and independent.

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