Valentine’s Day, also known as St Valentine’s Day or the Feast of St Valentine is celebrated annually on 14th February. The English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, is thought to be the first to record St Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration in his poem The Parliament of Fowls1 composed in the late 1300s.
Written valentine messages appeared in the 1400s and the oldest known valentine still in existence is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. By the early 18th century Valentine’s Day had grown into an occasion when couples expressed their love for one another either by presenting flowers, confectionary or greeting cards known as valentines.
In early Victorian times, after the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840, valentine cards could be mailed for just one penny, and the sending of valentine cards grew. A poem of the time by James Beaton, alludes to the mass popularity of valentine cards:
The letters in St. Valentine so vastly amount,
Postmen may judge them by the lot, they won’t have time to count;
They must bring round spade and measures, to poor love-sick souls
Deliver them by bushels, the same they do coals.
In 1841, 400,000 valentines were posted throughout England and by 1871, 1.2 million cards were processed by the General Post Office in London2.
Valentine’s Day 1872
150 years ago, the Berrow’s Worcester Journal3 reported on the large number of valentines that were handled by Worcester’s postmen:
Stationers and dealers in fancy goods have recently displayed a charming assortment of Cupid’s missives, which have found a ready sale, and postmen and supernumeraries have found it no easy task to deliver the love tokens to expectant thousands……… Exquisite designs in flowers, tiny birds of brilliant plumage nestling in some; figures of the little love god accompanied with verses; beautifully executed work on cards; lace-like bordering to pretty pictures; books with tastefully ornamented covers; elegant scent packets; these and other innumerable are arrayed in the shop windows. All tastes are consulted……… handsome cigar cases, purse, earrings, brooches and other useful articles. In this city, the Saint appears to have a large number of votaries, judging from the scene enacted in front of the Post-office for two hours on Tuesday evening. It was very amusing to witness the reception experienced by every visitor to the letter box, whatever the character of his correspondence happened to be. Young and old, gentle and simple, staid men of business, Benedicts, bachelors, and ladies of uncertain age, bashful youths and blushing amorate, all alike had to run the gauntlet of the jostling bantering crowd. The post-office authorities consider that the valentines sent this year were more numerous than on previous occasions, and an increase in larger ones (contained in boxes) was particularly observable. After the despatch at nine p.m., ten men were occupied for two-and-a-half hours in disposing of the valentines for the Worcester postal district alone. In order to prevent any delay in the delivery of ordinary correspondence, a special delivery of valentines was made at about noon, so that the letter carriers were employed almost continuously from 4.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The labour of carriers was unusually great in consequence of the large number of cumbersome boxes, and if this class of valentines should become more popular, as it seems likely to do, the postal authorities will certainly have to employ vehicles for the delivery of them.
A selection of Victorian Valentine’s Day cards in the collection held at the Museum of London:
Broadway History Society
1. The The Parlement of Foules also called the The Parlement of Briddes, a 699 line poem in rhyme written 1380-90.
2. Mancoff, Debra N. Love’s Messenger: Tokens of Affection in the Victorian Age. Art Institute of Chicago, 1997.
3. Berrow’s Worcester Journal. Saturday, February 17, 1872, page 4.