Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day!

Dear OOTJ Readers,

Happy Valentine's Day! I wondered how the heart came to be considered the seat of affection, and also how the stylized hearts we see on valentines today came to represent the anatomical heart. Other mysterious choices for Valentine's Day symbols are birds and flowers. I have not solved the mystery, alas! If anybody knows these things, I'd love to hear.

In noodling around the Internet in search of answers, I found a charming site with a valentines exhibit: The American Antiquarian. They detail the long history of a day to celebrate love. The early Lupercalia in Rome actually celebrated fertility, at the right time of year to match our modern Valentine's Day (see Wikipedia). Then, we have a long pause until one of two (or is it three?) possible Christian martyrs named Valentinus gave name to our current holiday. The rise of courtly love in medieval Europe changed the way love was defined. Possibly, the first romantic valentine, rhymed romantic letters, may have been sent by Duc Charles d'Orleans to his wife while he was held in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt. Geoffrey Chaucer, in the 1300's, wrote in The Parliament of Fowls, in honor of the one year anniverary between England's King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. Chaucer discusses what must have been a folk-belief that all the birds choose a mate on February 14. Shakespeare also mentions this belief in A Midsummer Night's Dream. A character in the play discovers two lovers in the woods and asks, "St. Valentine is past; Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?"

See Annie's Page, which extracted this history of Valentine's Day from the 1998 World Book Encyclopedia:

One description of Valentine's Day during the 1700's tells how groups of friends met to draw names. For several days, each man wore his valentine's name on his sleeve. The saying wearing his heart on his sleeve probably came from this practice.

The custom of sending romantic messages gradually replaced that of giving gifts. In the 1700's and 1800's, many stores sold handbooks called valentine writers. These books included verses to copy and various suggestions about writing valentines.

Commercial valentines were first made in the early 1800's. Many of them were blank inside, with space for the sender to write a message. The British artist Kate Greenaway became famous for her valentines in the late 1800's. Many of her cards featured charming pictures of happy children and lovely gardens. Esther A. Howland, (featured in the American Antiquarian site, above) of Worcester, Massachusetts, became one of the first U.S. manufacturers of valentines. In 1847, after seeing a British valentine, she decided to make some of her own. She made samples and took orders from stores. Then she hired a staff of young women and set up an assembly line to produce the cards. One woman glued on paper flowers, another added lace, and another painted leaves. Howland soon expanded her business into a $100,000-a-year enterprise.

Many valentines of the 1800's were hand painted. Some featured a fat cupid or showed arrows piercing a heart. Many cards had satin, ribbon, or lace trim. Others were decorated with dried flowers, feathers, imitation jewels, mother-of-pearl, sea shells, or tassels. Some cards cost as much as $10.

From the mid-1800's to the early 1900's, many people sent comic valentines called penny dreadfuls. These cards sold for a penny and featured such insulting verses as:

'Tis all in vain your simpering looks,
You never can incline,
With all your bustles, stays, and curls,
To find a valentine.

The lovely Victorian Valentine is from a wonderful exhibit at the Indiana University Lilly Library here

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