A History of St. Valentine’s Day

Frank Vargo and Anthony Borgo
February 2019

The Roman Feast of Lupercalia

As most of the world gets ready to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day this month, let’s take a look at why we celebrate this day in the middle of February. 

Although the Valentine’s Day we know got its start in the European Middle Ages, we can go back to the Romans who had special activities associated with love and mating at this time of the year.  In ancient Rome, the names of young women were put into a box. 

When the boy pulled out the name of a young woman, they were considered partners for the new year, which according to the early Roman calendar began in March. 

Saint Valentine

When the teaching of the Catholic Church spread over Europe, this celebration took on a more religious theme. The Church actually recognizes three Valentines in its list of saints.  Each St. Valentine had his feast day on February 14.  

Many legends have been associated with St. Valentine.  One had him imprisoned and, while there, he cured the daughter of his jailer of her blindness.  Another story, in an attempt to associate him more closely with St. Valentine’s Day, said that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and sent her a letter which he signed, “From your Valentine.” 

In the Middle Ages, people throughout Europe believed that birds mated on February 14.  This belief, that birds chose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day, led to the idea that boys and girls should do the same.   

As early as the 15th century in England, men wrote “amorous addresses” to their lady love.  A legend said that a young lady was supposed to eventually marry the first male that she met on St. Valentine’s Day.

Thomas Kemble

Not everyone viewed expressions of love as something that should be celebrated. The Puritans in the New England colonies did not allow any public displays of affection on any day of the year.  Thus, when Captain Kemble of Boston, in a burst of passion kissed his wife in public, he was sentenced to two hours in the stocks for “lewd and unseemly behavior.”  The captain had just returned from a three year voyage. 

Valentine from the Turn of the Century

By the 1720s, the custom of writing valentine verses and making valentine cards was becoming more popular.  Cupids, hearts, lover’s knots and gentle turtledoves were sometimes drawn on these homemade signs of affection.  Commercial valentines came out around 1800 and by 1840 the first “mechanical” valentines were produced.   By pulling a tab, an object or figure on the card could be made to move.  Pop-outs and other three-dimensional features were also a part of some greeting cards.  Comic valentine cards were first designed about 1870 in the United States. At the turn of the 20th century, postcards became a popular way of sending valentine greetings.

In 1912, one lucky family from Whiting received more than cards and candy for Valentine’s Day. Mrs. Sophia Wuestenfelt, one of Whiting’s pioneers, had the distinction of presenting the most substantial valentine gifts on record. Sophia, who was 75 years old at the time, presented her four children and one daughter-in-law with a $100 bill. One hundred dollars in 1912 equates to $2,590 today. Wuestenfelt, whose husband had passed away, presented her gifts to the following: Herman (son) of Whiting, August (son) of Alton, Illinois, Sophie Dans (daughter) of Rolling Prairie, Indiana, Mary Momuth (daughter) of Chicago, Illinois, and Mrs. William Wuestenfelt (daughter-in-law) of Chicago.

Valentine from the Turn of the Century

According to the Hammond Times in February 1929, Hammond Postmaster McHie estimated that approximately 20,000 valentines were sent through the Hammond post office. “Grown-ups weren’t allowed to forget Valentine’s Day either. Shop windows (throughout the Calumet region) displayed valentines of all sorts. In bakery windows there were heart shaped cookies and cakes, and in candy shops there were fat red hearts of all sizes containing chocolates, stick candy, or nuts.”

Socialites in Whiting were extremely busy during Valentine’s Day. Over the years several societies and clubs held valentine themed parties and celebrations. Dinners were held with party favors, sweet treats, and the exchange of cards.

The Times stated that in 1936 St. Valentine’s Day was set to see a number of new ideas incorporated. “The up-to-date variety of sentiment no longer goes in for cooing turtle doves and extravagant effusions, but it’s just as sincere.” Valentines exchanged by youths shied away from the idea of love and were replaced with the term “like” to represent friendship. Even the images on the cards were different. “Stuck on the card may be a bit of sponge to denote a man’s hair or a feather masquerading as a duck’s tail.”

During World War II, several stores featured advertisements in The Times reminding people not to forget the boys overseas. Anyone interested in purchasing a valentine for a serviceman could do so, and then the store would make sure it was sent to one of the brave men or women in the armed forces.

Another trend in America was sending comical valentines to family and friends. However, according to a 1945 Hammond Times article, not everyone found these cards funny. “A sense of humor - it’s wonderful! But when some guy sends you a comic valentine making fun of your wife or another flinging slimy (and as you might surmise, anonymous) cracks at your allegedly foul private life - Well it ain’t funny, buddy.” Many “regionites” expressed disfavor at the vulgar and obscene nature of the comic valentines offered for sale. The following is a poem that grew criticism in Hammond, “The beauty shops of our fair city, Have worked like heck to make you pretty - Apparently, it’s all in vain, Your face gives me the same old pain.”

Today valentine greetings are made to be sent to nearly everyone – friend, relative, and sweetheart. St. Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas in the number of greeting cards sent in the United States.