Valentine’s Day History & Traditions: How Our Ancestors Celebrated

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary tells the history of St. Valentine’s Day, and describes some of the ways our ancestors celebrated this romantic holiday.

Valentines take many forms – from cards to flowers to romantic gestures – so why not take a look at Valentine’s Day traditions from history to generate new ideas of your own?

photo of an early Valentine's Day card, c.1919

Photo: early valentine, c.1919. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Saint Valentine

Our ancestors had many unique ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day, many of which centered on Saint Valentine or Valentinius of Italy.

Surprisingly little is known about Valentine, and the historical accounts of his life and death all differ. Most reports agree that he was a third century martyr who was beheaded on February 14 by the Romans for offering aid to Christians. But accounts differ as to what year he was executed, and by the order of which Roman emperor.

The story below, published in a 1913 newspaper, reports that Valentine rose through the offices of the church, but after becoming a bishop he was imprisoned by Calpernius, the High Sheriff. Roman Emperor Claudius wanted Valentine punished as a heathen, but passed the job onto Deputy Sheriff Asterius, whose daughter was blind. When Valentine saw her, he performed an exorcism which supposedly drove away the evil spirits causing her blindness. Her eyesight was restored and many, including Asterius, converted to Christianity. Unfortunately, Valentine was put back into prison and later beheaded.

article about St. Valentine, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 14 February 1913

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 14 February 1913, page 7

As the old newspaper article reports, the day Valentine lost his head (February 14) is also the day that lovers lose theirs:

The day on which Valentine lost his head – these over-zealous people frequently lose their heads, but not always that way – was February 14, and ever since that time it has been known as St. Valentine’s Day.

Romantic Poetry

Delightful Valentine’s Day poems abound in newspapers, including this excerpt about Cupid from Aesop’s “A Fable: The Wolf, the Sheep, and the Lamb” published in a 1749 newspaper.

a love poem, New-York Evening Post newspaper article 10 April 1749

New-York Evening Post (New York, New York), 10 April 1749, page 2

James Henry Hurdis (1800-1857), an artist and professor of poetry, alluded to the tradition of love knots in this poem from 1818. Love knots take many forms, but were often valentines written on paper or ribbon and tied in elaborate knots (see examples at this Victorian Rituals website).

a love poem, Providence Patriot newspaper article 7 February 1818

Providence Patriot (Providence, Rhode Island), 7 February 1818, page 1

Sending Valentine Cards

One of the most popular forms of celebrating Valentine’s Day, of course, is the sending of valentine cards to express your love. Valentines, in the form of love poems, have been written since the Middle Ages. In the 18th century printed valentine cards, with poetry and sometimes decorations, were produced. Valentine cards became hugely popular in the 19th century when lower postage rates made it affordable to send cards in the mail. Today, billions of dollars are spent around the world on Valentine’s Day cards, flowers, chocolates, jewelry and other gifts.

photo of an early Valentine's Day card

Photo: early valentine, c.1919. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Anonymous Valentines

Sending unsigned anonymous valentines was an annual tradition in our household, and I wonder if my descendants will be puzzled at one of my unusual heirlooms: a large collection of unsigned Valentine’s Day cards. Every February, unsigned V-day cards and chocolate candies would arrive in the mail. We always knew they were from the grandparents, but that didn’t stop us from delighting in the festivities.

I used to think the tradition of anonymous valentines was unique to my family, but after finding comics (such as the 1894 cartoon below) and other references, I now realize that this Valentine’s Day tradition predates my grandparents.

Valentine's Day cartoon, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper cartoon 25 February 1894

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 February 1894, page 18

Courtship Rituals

According to this 1856 newspaper article, gifts between would-be lovers are a long-honored Valentine’s Day practice, and one that the romantic Madame Royale helped establish. As the daughter of Henry the Fourth of France, she frequently hosted balls at her palace near Turin, which was appropriately called Valentine.

Enter Last Name

Knights were instructed to present nosegays to their ladies, and in exchange, the belles furnished trappings or decorations for their admirers’ horses. If the knight won the tournament, he then presented the prize to his beloved.

As the historical news article reports:

At the various balls which this gallant princess gave during the year, it was directed that each lady should receive a nosegay from her lover, and that at every tournament the knight’s trappings for his horse should be furnished by his allotted mistress, with this proviso, that the prize obtained should be hers. These pleasant interchanges among the ‘young people’ finally grew into a custom, and thus originated the exchange of love tokens on St. Valentine’s Day.

article about Valentine's Day, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper article 16 February 1856

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York, New York), 16 February 1856, page 14

Bay Leaves, Clay Balls and Hardboiled Eggs

According to this 1874 newspaper article about grandmotherly traditions, our female ancestors celebrated Valentine’s Day by pinning bay leaves to their pillows.

The ritual including dreaming of one’s sweetheart in hopes of being married within the year. Another Valentine’s Day tradition entailed writing lovers’ names on bits of paper, rolling them in clay and then placing them under water. Whichever name rose to the surface first would be the Valentine.

article about Valentine's Day traditions, Daily Graphic newspaper article 14 February 1874

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 14 February 1874, page 2

There was another ritual in this Valentine’s Day tradition which has thankfully died out! The yolk of a hardboiled egg was replaced with salt, and then the egg was eaten – shell and all – without speaking of one’s sweetheart or even “winking” after him.

Hope you have a very happy Valentine’s Day. Please share any favorite holiday traditions with us in the comments section.

Related Valentine’s Day Articles:

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Valentine’s Day History: A Look Back at Old Love Poems & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches through old newspapers to find valentine poems and other romantic messages from Valentine’s Day celebrations of the past.

an 1890 Valentine Day's card

Illustration: “To My Valentine,” 1890. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010645777/

Ask any child if they know a valentine poem, and they’re likely to recite this couplet:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.

Love Poem History in Newspapers

If you research early newspapers, such as the online collection in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, you’ll discover quaint “Roses are red” valentine traditions—along with many variations on the theme. Many of these old love poems have delighted children and amorous suitors for a very long time.

One of the earliest “Roses are red” newspaper references was in this 1874 review of Fantoccini, a book fashioned after a puppet show by the same name.

a review of the book "Fantoccini," Springfield Republican newspaper article 1 September 1874

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 1 September 1874, page 3

Roses Are Red Alice

The author of this newspaper article panned Fantoccini for mimicking the “Alice” books, and criticized this version of “Roses are red” as an example of how “any number of well-meaning idiots have been moved to think that they could do as well” as the Alice in Wonderland books.

Roses are red
Diddle, diddle,
Violets are blue;
You love not me,
Diddle, diddle,
Though I love you.
Could them three flowers
Diddle, diddle,
Alter their dyes,
Then might we love
Diddle, diddle,
Contrariwise.

Turn of the 19th Century Valentine’s Day Trends

An 1899 Valentine’s Day trend was to send a valentine with a small object attached. One such Valentine’s Day card had an artificial violet and featured this poem:

Roses are red, violets are blue;
Sugar is sweet and so are you.
So please accept this small bouquet
That I have picked for you today.

article about Valentine's Day cards, Evening Star newspaper article 11 February 1899

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 11 February 1899, page 2

As cards became commercialized, shop clerks often assisted shoppers in their frantic searches for the perfect valentine card. These clerks were often amused at the suitors’ choices, as not everyone chose wisely!

In 1907, a sentimental young man purchased a valentine with this plea:

Come rest in my bosom my own stricken deer.

I hope his love interest fell for that line, although he might have been better off with this fashionable seller of the day:

The light that lies in woman’s eyes has been my heart’s undoing.

As this article notes, the old favorite was also offered on 1907 cards:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue;
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.

article about Valentine's Day cards, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 14 February 1907

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 14 February 1907, page 4

Anonymous Valentine Admirers

Have you ever sent or received an anonymous Valentine’s Day card?

In 1909, valentines overwhelmed the mail carriers, but “cupids” were also prone to depositing a card at a young woman’s door, ringing the bell and then fleeing off into the darkness before being discovered.

Valentines--Yes, Thousands of Them, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 14 February 1909

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 14 February 1909, page 2

Valentine Telegrams

There once were even valentine telegrams—certainly a relic of the past to any of today’s youth.

Western Union used to offer suggestions as to what to write. Many valentine poems and sayings reflected the era they were written in, such as these hipster valentine telegrams from 1954. These messages were always printed in upper case, as that was the only typeface option available for telegrams:

  • “MY HEART’S A-FIRE. FOR YOU I PINE. SAY YES-YES-YES MY VALENTINE.”
  • “ROSES ARE RED, VIOLETS ARE BLUE: THERE’S NO ONE ELSE BUT YOU-YOU-YOU.”
  • “MAN, YOU’RE GROOVY, CHICK O’MINE: BE MY REAL COOL VALENTINE.”
  • “LET IT RAIN. LET IT DRIZZLE. KISS ME, BABE, AND HEAR ME SIZZLE.”
article about Valentine's Day telegrams, Oregonian newspaper article 12 February 1954

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 February 1954, page 15

Then of course there were singing telegrams that suitors could use to woo their valentines, which, according to this 1938 Texas newspaper article, originated in New York. Popular for multiple holidays, the telegraph company accommodated special requests—including special tunes and parodies.

article about singing telegrams, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 31 August 1938

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 31 August 1938, page 3

Valentine Newspaper Advertisements

Was your family particularly romantic on Valentine’s Day? If so, see if they may have placed valentine advertisements in newspapers. Search your hometown papers, but remember to be creative, as the suitors rarely used their full names!

Valentine's Day newspaper ads, Springfield Union newspaper advertisements 14 February 1983

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 14 February 1983, page 25

Romantic Ideas & Inspiration

If you’re feeling like “Roses are red, Violets are blue” doesn’t express the perfect sentiment for your sweetheart, you can always find inspiration by searching old newspapers for romantic poetry.

Valentine's Day poem, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 14 February 1984

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 14 February 1984, page C2

That reference to “Elizabeth Barrett” reminds me of one of my favorite love poems of all time: this timeless verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Springfield Republican newspaper article 16 July 1874

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 16 July 1874, page 3

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!