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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Old Fashioned Valentine’s Day Treats & Sweets

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to find Valentine’s Day menus and recipes that our ancestors enjoyed.

Valentine’s Day is Saturday, and one item associated with that holiday is food. According to the website History, it was after 1840 that Valentine’s Day became associated with gift giving. British chocolatier Richard Cadbury introduced the idea of “eating chocolates,” a byproduct from the making of drinking chocolate. He even designed boxes for the candies to come in. He’s credited with creating the heart-shaped box that served as a beautiful gift package for the chocolates and provided a storage place for memorabilia.*

So what’s on your Valentine’s Day menu? Will your gift shopping involve the traditional heart-shaped box, or will you settle for a quiet night and a home-cooked romantic meal? If you’re having a night in, there are plenty of ideas for Valentine’s Day-themed foods in old newspaper articles to inspire you.

Valentine’s Day Menus

This 1928 Valentine’s-theme menu includes two gelatin recipes, one savory and one sweet: a heart-shaped salad and a strawberry soufflé.

recipe for a Valentine's Day heart-shaped salad, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 11 February 1928

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 11 February 1928, page 11

recipe for a Valentine's Day souffle, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 11 February 1928

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 11 February 1928, page 11

Like other holiday foods, Valentine’s Day food is associated with certain colors, mostly red and pink. This old newspaper article from 1951 proclaims that “Food for Valentine’s Day is probably as much fun to prepare as for any party because it is so pink and pretty.” While that may or may not be true, there’s no doubt that most people like the types of food described in these recipes, namely cookies and pie. The cookies described here are fairly easy to make, using a devil’s food cake mix as their base. Red food dye, cranberry sauce and heart shapes help the meringue add to the dessert tray.

Valentine Foods Fun to Prepare, Oregonian newspaper article 12 February 1951

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 February 1951, page 13

This 1941 Nebraska newspaper provides three possible menus for a Valentine luncheon, all with a different dessert. Depending on which menu you choose you could have “strawberry ice cream in meringue shells,” “red raspberry chiffon pie,” or “maraschino ice cream and petite fours.”

Add Color to Valentine's Day Table, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 31 January 1941

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 31 January 1941, page 17

Start with Oysters & Salad, Then Eat Candy

Probably one of my favorite Valentine menus found in the newspaper is this one from 1915 entitled “Queen of Hearts Cook Book.” In this early 20th century menu, oysters served on heart-shaped croustades are followed by a Love Apple Salad. From there the couple can have St. Valentine Sandwiches cut into heart shapes, and then they can move on to a dessert of heart-shaped candies dipped in chocolate. Of course like many Valentine menus, the ability to make all kinds of food heart-shaped is imperative. In this case the author instructs for the sandwiches: “…you will need a heart-shaped cutter which can be bought for about five cents.”

recipe for Valentine's Day, Boston Herald newspaper article 14 February 1915

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 14 February 1915, page 40

Obviously Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to serve heart-shaped foods. That tradition continues today and even my local pizza restaurants get in on the action by serving heart-shaped pizzas.

Enter Last Name

Bring on the Chocolate

Sure you can buy chocolate candies – but why not whip up a chocolate dessert?

In this 1977 collection of recipes, those who love chocolate can choose either Chocolate Amaretto Kisses or Thicker No-Egg Chocolate Cake. While there is a recipe for His Valentine Cookies which can be served with either jam, jelly, caviar or grated cheese, my guess is the men might prefer the Myers’s Jamaican Rum Pie.

photo of desserts for Valentine's Day, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

recipe for amaretto kisses, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

recipe for chocolate cake, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

recipe for Valentine's Day cookies, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

recipe for Jamaican rum pie, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

Do you have a traditional, old fashioned Valentine’s Day recipe? I’d love to hear about it. Please share in the comments below.

Related Articles:

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* Celebrating Valentine’s Day with a Box of Chocolates. History. http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/celebrating-valentines-day-with-a-box-of-chocolates. Accessed 8 February 2015.

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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!

Valentine’s Day History Facts & My Sweet Genealogy Karma

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott turns to old newspapers to research the history of St. Valentine’s Day—and shares a personal Valentine’s Day story.

Nothing much beats holidays as a way to get everyone talking about family, memories, stories, and family history. Certainly Valentine’s Day is no exception! I’ve been blessed to have my “Valentine” with me now for over 38 years and I sure am glad she said that she would be my valentine all those years ago.

In the case of my wonderful wife, each year about this time I would go out to find one of those fancy satin hearts filled with chocolates. Why? Well, when we were dating she told me, very early in our relationship, “I’ll know the man who really loves me because he will buy me one of those fancy hearts filled with chocolates for Valentine’s Day.” Needless to say I bought one for her every year after that.

Every year, that is, until recently when she said to me: “OK honey, I know you love me so you can stop now.” So now I have to be creative and come up with something new and different each Valentine’s Day. That got me to thinking this year about what the history of Valentine’s Day was, what gifts might have been like in the past, etc. I admit I never really knew much about this holiday, so I gave GenealogyBank.com a look for some information about this romantic day and maybe even find some potential ideas for my wife’s gift.

Historical Origins of Valentine’s Day

My first hit helped explain the history of the Valentine’s Day holiday. There in a 1925 newspaper was an intriguing, full-page article describing the origins of Valentine’s Day. The first thing I learned was that it is actually St. Valentine’s Day, named after the long-ago martyred Saint Valentine.

Why We Call It St. Valentine's Day, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 February 1925

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 February 1925, page 1

I certainly appreciated one of the cartoons that accompanied the old news article, even if I have been lucky enough to never have to visit a pawnshop prior to my shopping trips for chocolate-filled hearts.

Valentine's Day cartoon, Dallas Morning News newspaper 8 February 1925

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 February 1925, page 1

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

My next hit was closer to my adopted hometown when I saw the byline of Chicago, but alas this 1929 newspaper article was about the infamous St. Valentine’s Day gangster massacre.

Link Capone with Chicago Massacre, Boston Herald newspaper article 15 February 1929

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 15 February 1929, page 1

Ugh…not romantic in the least, although it is a very interesting event in our national history. So I was off in search of more newspaper articles about Valentine’s Day.

My Sweet Genealogy Karma

Then I found it! At least, to me as a genealogist, I found it. It was in a 1910 newspaper: there was an advertisement entitled “For Your Valentine: Candy Hearts and Heart Shaped Boxes.”

Valentine's Day candy ad, Plain Dealer newspaper 11 February 1910

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 February 1910, page 14

I smiled when I saw that the price of satin heart boxes ran from 20 cents to $4, but it was the name of the company that ran the advertisement, The Chandler & Rudd Company, that actually caught my eye. You see back in 1910 my great grandfather, Frederick George Evenden, was a Master Tea Blender for none other than The Chandler & Rudd Company. Yep, the very same company as the one in the advertisement—and during the time that he worked there.

So for all these years my buying chocolate-filled hearts was simply karma! Karma sent from my great grandfather to my wife, giving her vibes to instruct me to go for what he personally knew was the really good stuff for Valentine’s Day! Sadly, Chandler & Rudd closed just two years ago, but if they were still open I’d be on the phone with them right now to buy her a sweet bit of the past.

So with a tip o’ my hat to my great grandfather Evenden, this year I am going back to getting my Sweetie some of those fancy chocolate candies in a heart-shaped box this Valentine’s Day for sure.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day to you and your family!