Valentines came into their own in the United States in the 1840s, but, of course, there were valentines before that--long, long before that. No one is certain when the first valentine was sent. There are several legends. One is that during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius II, a man named Valentinus gave aid and comfort to Christians, which at the time was a crime. He was imprisoned and condemned to death. While awaiting execution, he fell in love with the jailor's daughter, and, the night before his scheduled death on February 14, in the year 270, he wrote her a farewell message and signed it "From your Valentine."1 Later he was made a Saint.
Then there are the missives sent by the Duke of Orleans [or-lay-ahn] when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He wrote romantic poems to his wife, some of which sound suspiciously like valentines: "Wilt thou be mine? Dear love, reply-Sweetly consent, or else deny: Whisper softly, none shall know-Wilt thou be mine, ay or no?"2 Another poem mentions cupid and St. Valentine, but, if these weren't sent on St. Valentine's Day, they would hardly qualify as Valentines, would they?
Perhaps the most likely possibility is a note sent in February of 1477, by an Englishwoman named Margery Brews to a man who had, earlier in the month, proposed marriage. She addresses him as "well beloved Valentine," and suggests "if you could be content with my poor person, I would be the merriest maiden on ground." It is signed, "your Valentine, Margery Brews." She later married the young man and apparently lived happily ever after.3
What about the first valentine made in America? It wasn't until the middle of the eighteenth century that valentines began to be created in the colonies. The Pennsylvania Germans, in particular, produced handmade valentines of exquisite detail and penmenship. They were all handmade and laboriously done, painted with water colors and executed with pin prick designs and intricate cut-outs. Robert Elton of Elton & Company began publishing valentines in 1833, and, once the notion of sending valentines caught on in the 1840s, demand for them increased rapidly.
By the end of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of valentines were produced and sent each year by both children and adults. Following WWI, the popularity of the valentine waned, but it was rescued by the children of America, who began sending them to their teacher, and bringing valentines to school to be placed in a box and then distributed, a custom in full swing today, thanks to those still printing valentines and to those courageous souls still willing to tackle glue, white paper lace, and red construction paper and declare their love, even if sometimes anonomously.
Notes:1 Lee, Ruth Webb, p. 4-5.
2 Quoted in Staff, Frank, p. 15.
3 Ibid, p. 17.
Lee, Ruth Webb. The History of Valentines. New York: Studio
Publications, Inc, in association with Thomas Y Crowell, 1952.
Copyright 2007© Rita Smith
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