- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
“Valentine” was a common, gender-neutral name during the third to sixth centuries. It is of Latin origin and means “strong and healthy.”
“Valentine” was the name of a third-century Christian martyr and saint whose feast falls on Feb. 14, the traditional date celebrating spring. He is the patron saint of lovers, epileptics, and beekeepers. Pope Gelasius I declared Valentine’s Day in 496 AD, when he proclaimed the day the Feast of St. Valentine.
While St. Valentine suggests God’s unconditional love, it was only much later that Valentine’s Day became associated with love at all. In fact, Valentine’s Day as a lovers’ festival dates from the 14th century.
Where does Cupid fit into this story? Greek mythology (around 700 BC) had the legend of Eros, god of desire.
Eros was the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and was considered both handsome and threatening. He would cause mayhem with the hearts of men, using his power to make people fall into ruinous love. Circa 440 BC, Eros’ power is described as sinister.
When the Roman era began (around 31 BC), the ruling class adopted Greek mythology. This included the image of a cherub, whom they named Cupid and who served as Eros’ counterpart. Centuries later, Renaissance painters depicted the Cupid figure as a young, nude boy with wings and a bow. They attributed Cupid with a positive intent in promoting love.
During the Middle Ages, Feb. 14 was associated with the beginning of birds’ mating season, thus the link with romance. In 1415, the first written Valentine’s Day card is attributed to Charles, Duke of Orleans, who penned a poem to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The first commercially made Valentine cards were produced in 1849 in Massachusetts. In the 1860s, Richard Cadbury, of Cadbury Chocolates, England, was the first to package chocolates in heart-shaped boxes to increase sales.
Cadbury originally sold cocoa for drinking. They introduced the first chocolate to be eaten, but the recipe was unpalatable by today’s standards. The Cadbury brothers removed the starchy materials, and in 1897 they introduced the milk chocolate we know today.
The greeting-card industry took off in the 1850s after Congress voted to decrease postage rates to avoid the privatization of the postal service. Mass-printing machines and lower postal costs made it possible for everyday Americans to send and receive mail, typically postcards.
In 1910, Joyce C. Hall and his brother founded a postcard company in Kansas City: the Hall Brothers Co. When postcard sales declined around 1916, they printed their own high-quality Valentine and Christmas cards to be mailed in envelopes. In 1954 they changed their name to Hallmark Cards.
Worldwide, about 1 billion cards are sent annually for Valentine’s Day (not including children’s classroom cards). Nearly 85% are sold to women.
Spending on the expression of affection in the U.S. totaled $23.9 billion in 2022, which included $6.2 billion for jewelry and over $2 billion for candy, mostly chocolate. Flowers, gift cards, food treats, wine, and personalized items or experiences are popular.
Within this buying frenzy, Cupid’s reputation and imagery remain a mainstay in the expression of love and friendship. They are imbedded in the commercialization of Valentine’s Day. An alternative this year: Be love.
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.