The History Of English Valentine Greeting Cards (1889)


“The day’s at hand, the young, the gay,

The lover’s and the postman’s day,

The day when, for that only day,

February turns to May,

And pens delight in secret play,

And few may hear what many say.”        —  Leigh Hunt.


The customs of St Valentine’s day have no direct connection with the saint whose name has been borrowed to designate the festival of the 14th of February. It is only by a side-light that any connection between the saint and the custom can be traced.

.  .  .  .  .  Now it happened that the fourteenth day of February was the day set apart for the commemoration of the saint named Valentine; and as the feasts referred to commenced, as has been seen, in the middle of February, a connection would seem to have been set up between the lotteries of the pagan customs (carried down to the time when Valentines were drawn for) and the saint’s festival, merely through a coincidence of days  .  .  .  .  .

The customs of St Valentine’s Day have passed through many phases, each age having its own variation, but all having a bearing to one idea .  .  .  .  .

In later times the drawing of a lady’s name for a Valentine was made the means of placing the drawer under the obligation to make a present to the lady. The celebrated Miss Stuart, who became the Duchess of Richmond, received from the Duke of York on one occasion a jewel worth £800, in discharge of this obligation; and Lord Mandeville, who was her Valentine at another time, presented her with a ring worth some £300.

The term Valentine is no longer used in its more general application to denote the lady to whom a present is sent on the 14th of February, but the thing sent, which is usually a more or less artistic print or painting, surmounted by an image of Cupid, and to which are annexed some lines of loving import. Thirty years ago Valentines were generally inexpensive articles, printed upon paper with embossed margins. Their style gradually improved until handpainted scenes upon satin grounds became common; and Valentines might be bought at any price from a halfpenny to five pounds. It should not be omitted to be noted that for many years Valentines have had their burlesques, in those ridiculous pictures which are generally sent anonymously on Valentine’s Day, and which were often observed to be decked out in extraordinary guises, and having affixed to them such things as spoons, dolls, toy monkeys, red herrings, rats, mice, and the like. On one occasion a Valentine was seen in the post having a human finger attached to it.

But as every dog has its day, and each succeeding period of life its own interests and allurements, so have customs their appointed seasons, and ideas their set times of holding sway over the popular mind. The wigs and buckled shoes of our forefathers, the ringlets of our grandmothers, which in their day were things of fashion, have lapsed into the category of the curious, and have to us none other than an antiquarian interest. The Liberal in politics of to-day becomes the Conservative of to-morrow; and the custom of sending Valentines, at one time so common, that afforded so great pleasure not only to the young, but sometimes to those of riper years, has already had its death-knell sounded; and at the present rate of decline, it bids fair very soon to be relegated to the shades of the past.

The rage for sending Valentines probably had its culmination some ten years ago, since when it has steadily gone down; and now the festival is no longer observed by fashionable people, its lingering votaries being found only among the poorer classes.

The following facts show how far the Post-office was called upon to do the messenger’s part in delivering the love-missives of St Valentine when the business was in full swing. At the chief office in London on Valentine’s Eve 1874, some 306 extra mail-bags, each 3 feet long by 2 feet wide, were required for the additional work thrown on the Post-office in connection with Valentines, and at every Post-office in the kingdom the staff was wont to regard St Valentine’s Eve as the occasion of the year when its utmost energies were laid under requisition for the service of the public.

But the decay of the ancient custom of sending Valentines has probably not come about from within itself; it may rather be attributed to the progress made in what may be called the rival custom of sending cards of greeting and good wishes at Christmas-time. It would almost seem that two such customs, having their times of observance only a few weeks apart, cannot exist together; and it will probably be found that the new has been growing precisely as the old has been dying, the former being much the stronger, choking the latter. Valentines were sent by the young only—or for the most part, at any rate—while Christmas-cards are in favour with almost every age and condition of life. It follows, then, that a custom such as this, having developed great energy, and being patronised by all classes, must throw a larger mass of work upon the Post-office—the channel through which such things naturally flow—than Valentines did. And so it has been found. The pressure on the Post-office in the heyday of Valentines was small by comparison with that which is now experienced at Christmas. During the Christmas season of 1877, the number of letters, &c., which passed through the Inland Branch of the General Post-office in London, in excess of the ordinary correspondence, was estimated at 4,500,000, a large portion of which reached the chief office on Christmas morning; while in the Christmas week of 1882 the extra correspondence similarly dealt with was estimated at 14,000,000, including registered letters (presumably containing presents of value), of which there was a weight of no less than three tons. Everywhere similar pressure has been felt in the post-offices, and it is by no means settled that we have yet reached the climax of this social but rampant custom.

In the London Metropolitan district there are employed 4030 postmen; and taking their daily amount of walking at 12 miles on the average—a very low estimate—this would represent an aggregate daily journeying on foot of 48,360 miles, or equal to twice the circumference of our globe.

Source: The Royal Mail: its curiousities and romance, 1889

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