On Valentine’s Day in 1850, a U.S. Army fort was established on the south bank of the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. The War Department had ordered Major General David E. Twiggs to establish the fort in response to escalating hostilities between settlers and Seminoles in the area. As a Valentine’s Day gift for his daughter, General Twiggs named the fort after her fiancé, Colonel Abraham C. Myers, chief quartermaster for the Department of Florida.
Valentine’s Day and war seems a curious combination, and yet, the oldest known valentine still in existence today was written by a prisoner of war. The year was 1416.
“SICK OF LOVE”
In 1415, the Duke of Orléans was captured by the English at the battle of Agincourt and held a prisoner in England for 25 years. In the first year of his imprisonment in the Tower of London, young Charles penned the following Valentine (translated from medieval French) presumably to his wife.
A Farewell to Love
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too late,
And I for you was born too soon.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.
“…FROM YOUR VALENTINUS”
According to popular legend, the first Valentine in history was also penned in prison.
During the third century A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius forbade Roman soldiers to marry, but, so the legend goes, a Roman named Valentinus, who was a Christian priest, went about secretly and illegally marrying soldiers to their sweethearts, anyway. One may say the priest died for love, because he was caught and condemned to death. The night before his execution, he wrote a loving note to the little daughter of his sympathetic jailer and signed it “from your Valentinus.”
The Christian Church canonized Valentinus, but it wasn’t until around 498 A.D. that Pope Gelasius declared February 14 to be “Saint Valentine’s Day.” The creation of a saint’s day on that date was an unsuccessful attempt to squelch the pagan fertility festival that the Romans had long enjoyed annually on February 15.
During this popular festival the pagan priests sacrificed a goat (for fertility) and a dog (for purification) and then, to encourage fertility, they ran around gently slapping women and crops with the bloody strips of the sacrificed goat’s hide.
The high point of the festival was a lottery, in which young unmarried women put their names in a big urn and then the town’s bachelors drew names and then, well, you know.
SAINTS AND LOVERS
Over the past 1500 years, we’ve sort of toed St. Valentine’s Day away from being the observance of a saint’s day and back in the direction of an occasion for, well, you know. First, we quietly dropped the “Saint” from the name of the holiday. By the 1700s, exchanging valentine gifts and notes was becoming popular and if we know anything about those perfumed ladies and gentlemen with powdered wigs and rouged cheeks, we can be fairly certain that they weren’t using the occasion for religious observances.
THE MOTHER OF THE AMERICAN VALENTINE
New England-born Esther Howland was 20 in 1848 when she began to design Valentine’s Day cards. She asked her father, who owned the largest book and stationary store in Worcester, MA, to order paper laces and flowers from England for her project, and she created a dozen sample cards for her brother, a salesman, to show to his clients. He came home with $5000 worth of orders. Esther promptly organized the New England Valentine Company, which would eventually gross annually over $100,000 in sales. Now, elaborate, ready-made Valentines, previously available only from Europe and at considerable expense, were available to young men and women of modest means.
However, the practice of buying and sending Valentine cards was considered by some to be “cheap and indecent.” On Valentine’s Day, 1856, the New York Times published the following editorial:
“Our beaux and belles are satisfied with a few miserable lines, neatly written upon fine paper, or else they purchase a printed Valentine with verses ready-made, some of which are costly, and many of which are cheap and indecent. In any case, whether decent or indecent, they only please the silly and give the vicious an opportunity to develop their propensities, and place them, anonymously, before the comparatively virtuous. The custom with us has no useful feature, and the sooner it is abolished the better.”
Valentine greetings were not abolished. In 1862, New Yorkers, alone, mailed 21,260 Valentines; in 1866, 86,000. Perhaps the bloodiest war in U.S. history, the Civil War, inspired a growing need for expressions of love and a longing for love.
However, then as now, it was not always the thing itself, but how much it cost. In the 1860s, a few Valentines were sold for as much as $500 each, the equivalent today of over $8000.
The New York Times described these exorbitantly priced Valentines as follows:
“Valentines of this class are not simply combinations of paper gorgeously gilded, carefully embossed and elaborately laced. To be sure they show paper lovers seated in paper grottoes, under paper roses, ambushed by paper cupids, and indulging in the luxury of paper kisses; but they also show something more attractive than these paper delights to the overjoyed receiver. Receptacles cunningly prepared may hide watches or other jewelry, and, of course, there is no limit to the lengths to which wealthy and foolish lovers may go.”
Apparently, there is no limit to the lengths to which a father might go for his little daughter on Valentine’s Day, either. Can you imagine a Major General naming a U.S. Army fort after his daughter’s fiancé? Such foolishness!
Happy Valentine’s Day, Fort Myers!