Why Do We Send Cards On Valentine's Day?

Roses, chocolates and jewelry might top the want-list for Valentine's Day gifts, but back in the day, all someone needed to feel the love was a mere handwritten card. Legend says that St. Valentine in the 3rd century CE inspired the now sought-after missives and the classic sign-off "from your Valentine."

In truth, though, at least three individuals had the name St. Valentine. All of them were martyred on February 14, so who exactly is the inspiration for all this love? According to the History Cooperative, a Christian priest in Rome, who lived under the rule of Emperor Claudius II, deserves the title. Old Claudius outlawed marriage for young men, asserting that being unwed made better and more reliable soldiers. St. Valentine felt their pain and married people secretly in spite of the edict. Eventually, his passion-driven efforts were discovered and he was imprisoned and subsequently killed. But before the execution, lore says, he wrote a letter to the jailer's daughter — a possible prison romance — to express his sweet love and say goodbye.

Another story of St. Valentine talks about him as if he were a superhero who rescued Christians from deplorable Roman prisons. In this tale, he also ended his letter with the signature, "your Valentine."

St. Valentine, Chaucer, and other inspirations

The validity of all these stories isn't certain, but St. Valentine was real. He was actually exhumed during a catacomb excavation in the 1800s. His skull currently rests in the Chiesa di Santa Maria, also known as the Basilica di Santa Maria, says Atlas Obscura. Other than that, all the origin tales remain unproven.

History Cooperative reports that Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century author of The Canterbury Tales, "might have actually been the one who begun celebrating love on the 14th of February." The English poet's work often started with actual historical events, so this could be true says believers. Case in point: The 699-line poem, "The Parliament of Fowls" (posted at Librarius) is the first recorded reference of lovers celebrating Valentine's Day. Chaucer writes: "For this was Seynt Valentyne's day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate." 

Today Americans spend almost $19.6 billion demonstrating their romantic love, according to History Extra. But the initial Valentine's Day offerings required less cash and more effort — cards were made by hand and decorated with flowers and love knots, and included poetry or puzzles.

From handwritten cards to commercialism

France's Duke of Orleans wrote the earliest surviving Valentine, crafted for his wife as he languished in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The British Library owns the letter, as well as the oldest Valentine written in English, a 1477 note written by Margery Brews to her fiancé, John Paston.

Pre-printed cards began around 1797 in Britain, like the one in the York Castle Museum that depicts Cupid. As technology advanced, so did Valentine's cards and the number in circulation. About 200,000 Valentine's were sent in Victorian London, according to History Extra. Not all the thoughts offered sweet nothings, however. "Vinegar Valentines" were intended to insult the recipient. The History website recounts one: "To My Valentine / 'Tis a lemon that I hand you and bid you now 'skidoo,' Because I love another — there is no chance for you." Ouch, harsh.

According to their corporate websites, American Greetings and Hallmark didn't get into the action until the early 1900s — 1906 and 1910, respectively. Now more than 190 million missives are sent each year, which makes Valentine's Day the second-biggest day card exchange, said Business News DailyChristmas still comes in first.