Valentine's Day Season
"L is for the way you look at me
O is for the only one I see
V is very, very extraordinary
E is even more than anyone that you adore ..."
~ L-O-V-E, music by Bert Kaempfert with lyrics by Milt Gabler, 1965
The custom of giving valentine cards as love tokens on Valentine's Day is dated to one of the oldest known surviving valentines, a poem composed in French in 1415 by Charles Duke of Orleans to his wife, which he sent while imprisoned in the Tower of London: "Je suis desja d'amour tanné/Ma tres doulce Valentinée" (I am already sick of love/My very gentle Valentine). By Victorian times, printed cards with hearts, flowers, ribbons, and verse were popularly exchanged on Valentine's Day. But along with these tokens of love also came the curious phenomenon of "Vinegar Valentines," cards which insulted and mocked the receiver's looks, intelligence, or occupation! These often macabre missives included designs that could be jokingly humorous, but were also often mean-spirited, political, and what would now be seen as racist. These "Mocking Valentines" (as they were called in Britain) might be sent to friends as a joke, enemies for revenge, or former objects of affection out of spite!
Though Valentine's Day has its origins in the Roman Festival of Lupercalia, the first reference to the concept of Valentine’s Day as a day for romantic love comes from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “Parlement of Foules”, believed to have been authored in 1382:
“For this was on seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make”
“This was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate." These lines reflected the widely held belief in the Middle Ages that birds selected mates in mid-February.
The custom of giving valentine cards on Valentine's Day is dated to one of the oldest known surviving valentines, a poem composed in French in 1415 by Charles Duke of Orleans to his wife, which he sent while imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Written to his wife Bonne of Armagnac, the love poem repeats phrases using "Valentine" as a term of endearment several times:
Je suis desja d'amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée
This French prose translates to “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine." Sadly, the Duke’s wife died before receiving the words of love of her imprisoned husband.
In the 1700s, something recognizable as a form of the modern greeting card began to be seen for Valentine’s Day. Pre-made cards weren’t available yet, so these early cards were handmade, and usually delivered secretly by slipping them under a door.
York Castle Museum has in their collection what is believed to be the oldest printed Valentine’s Day card in existence. Printed in London in 1797, it is hand colored and features elaborate floral patterns, cupids, doves, and a lace effect created by piercing the paper. A verse trails around the edge of the floral pattern:
"Since on this ever Happy day, All Nature's full of Love and Play. Yet harmless still if my design, 'Tis but to be your Valentine."
If the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, this may explain the unusual custom of Vinegar Valentines, a form of insulting Valentine's Day card arising in the early 1840s, which fed off a pent up demand to insult or mock others!
Vinegar valentines were usually decorated with a caricature and featured an insulting poem or rhyme. First produced in the United States in the 1840s, these cynical, sarcastic, and often mean-spirited greeting cards enjoyed popularity from the 1840s to the 1940s. The unflattering cards reportedly created a stir throughout all social levels, sometimes provoking fisticuffs and arguments as they insulted a person's looks, intelligence, or occupation.
Adding insult to injury, the receiver, not the sender, was responsible for the cost of postage during the 1840s. Millions of vinegar valentines were sold between the 19th and 20th centuries. In Britain, they were more commonly called 'mock' or 'mocking' valentines. They are collector's items today.
For more on Vinegar Valentines, click the sweeter vintage Valentine collage.