Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Valentine's Day in the 1800s by Jo-Ann Roberts


Valentine's Day, also called St. Valentine's Day or the Feast of St. Valentine, is celebrated annually on February 14th. It originated as a Western Christian feast day honoring one or two early Christian martyrs named St. Valentine and is recognized as a significant cultural, religious, and commercial celebration of romance and love in many regions of the world.


Formal messages or valentines, appeared in the 1500s, and by the late 1700s commercially printed cards were being used. The first commercial valentines in the United States were printed in the mid-1800s. Valentines commonly depict Cupid, the Roman god of love, along with hearts, traditionally the seat of emotion. Because it was thought that the bird mating season begins in mid-February, birds also became a symbol of the day.

By the 1840s, the notion of Valentine’s Day as a holiday to celebrate romantic love had taken over most of the English-speaking world. The Victorians adored the notion of courtly love and showered each other with cards and gifts. Into this love-crazed fray came Richard Cadbury, scion of a British chocolate manufacturing family.

Cadbury used to produce many more varieties of what was then called “eating chocolate.” Richard recognized a great marketing opportunity for the new chocolates and started selling them in beautifully decorated boxes that he himself designed.

Cadbury marketed the boxes as having a dual purpose: When the chocolates had all been eaten, the box itself was so pretty that it could be used again and again to store mementos, from locks of hair to love letters.

Valentine cards have been a popular way to send affectionate greetings for many years. These examples date from the Civil War.

The switch from handmade to manufactured Valentine's cards began during the 1840s. By the start of the Civil War in 1861, many manufacturers were marketing the cards to soldiers far away from their loved ones.         

Once the war was over and the disillusioned soldiers left their war-torn homes for a new life in the West, many were determined to marry and raise families.  One obstacle stood in their way…the lack of females!

If a man was lucky enough to have a wife or sweetheart in the far reaches of the frontier, he needed to come up with a plan how to woo them…especially on Valentine’s Day.

Enter the railroads. By 1869, the transcontinental railroad had laid track to the west from the rest of the country.  Those men who could have afforded trinkets, books of poetry, tins of candy, a piece of jewelry, or toilet water needed only to order them through the local mercantile, if the items weren’t already stocked on their shelves.

Knowing ladies liked lace and ribbons, the suitor could easily fashion a handmade greeting card.

By the last decade of the 1800s, access to a mail-order catalog (Sears & Roebucks, Montgomery Ward, and Eaton’s in Canada) offered jewelry, hat-pins, parasols, and rings to the man who had hard cash and the desire to impress his lady.


However, in lieu of tangible gifts, the suitor might present his lady with something of himself. A carefully handwritten love letter in his best penmanship was a gift many a lady would highly cherish.         

Carving out a life in the West, many men acquired skills which came in handy when crafting a gift for his intended. Whether it was a hand-tooled leather sewing box,  a wooden blanket chest, or a poem of his own creation, men in the West were determined to show their affection on Valentine’s Day by manufacturing something hewed by his own hands.

Today, Valentine’s Day celebrations are as varied and creative (in the Covid-19 world!) as the people planning them.  But in 1873, this advertisement in the Matrimonial Times actually occurred in San Francisco. What woman could resist an invitation so eloquently stated!!!   

“Any gal that got a bed, calico dress, coffee pot and skillet, knows how to cut out britches and can make a hunting shirt, knows how to take care of children can have my services till death do us part.”       


  1. Wonderful history of Valentine's Day! I love those Victorian cards.

    1. Thank you, Lyn! I love the vintage valentine cards as well. So elegant, so pretty and brings back a more refined period the days when people actually took time to create something special for their loved one.

  2. I love the old Valentines. There's a small museum in a tiny off-the-beaten-path town in Virginia that is devoted to Valentines. It was so much fun visiting!
    Love the advertisement. Thanks for the fun post.

  3. Thanks, Elizabeth! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. It was fun researching past traditions. I'd love to visit that museum...where is it located in Virginia?

  4. Hi Jo-Ann, Just got around to reading your post, sure enjoyed it! Hope you had a nice Valentine's Day.

    1. Thanks, Cheri,
      It was such a fun topic to research and write. So much info that I had a difficult time deciding what and how much to include. I hope your Valentine's Day was as special as you are.


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