Today Valentine’ Day is all about chocolates, cards and romance, but the tradition of Valentine has its roots in ancient Rome when a springtime festival of fertility called Lupercalia was held every February. A popular activity at the festival was the pairing up of men and women through a lottery.
Later, when Christianity arrived, the February festival was rebranded as Valentine’s Day. Named after St Valentine, a Christian martyr who was imprisoned in ancient Rome for his beliefs. He was said to have written a love letter to his jailor’s daughter, signing it ‘from your Valentine’.
Sending your love a Valentine’s card didn’t become popular until the 1700s and the oldest example dates from 1795, but like most things it was the Victorians who really popularised the giving and receiving of love letters in the form of cards. With the introduction of the new Royal Mail system people could send letters and cards for a penny black stamp. It is thought that in 1820 around 200,000 Valentine’s cards were bought and sent in the Borough of London alone and by 1840 this number had doubled.
Victorian Valentine’s cards could be bought from a stationary shop or made by hand at home. They featured painted and drawn flowers, material and cardboard lace and printed or handwritten love poems.
This is a beautiful example of a Victorian Valentine’s card. Made from cardboard lace and featuring a central image of a woman. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.
We also have the Victorians to thank for our tradition of giving chocolates for Valentine’s Day. In 1868 master chocolate makers at Cadbury created the first Valentine’s box of Chocolates in the shape of a heart. These chocolate boxes where incredibly expensive and the boxes were reused as sewing and button boxes as they were elaborately decorated and made from wood. As the tradition grew over the decades the price of a box of chocolates came down and Cadbury established some of our favourite boxes such as Milk Tray in 1915.
A Box of Milk Tray Chocolates in the classic Cadbury purple. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.
The giving of flowers is also a significant part of the Valentine’s celebrations, and the Victorians took flower gifting to a different level by inventing the ‘language of flowers’. Each flower was assigned a meaning and meant that couples could exchange secret messages by giving each other specific flowers. For example, a daisy means ‘I love you truly’ while a poppy means ‘I am not free’.
Flowers have often been associated with romance and play a big part in the Valentines Day celebrations. From giving fresh flowers, keeping pressed flowers, and giving cards with flowers on, the Victorians loved filling their relationships with floral connotations. Valentine card, image courtesy of Hartlepool Museum Service.
Romance was difficult for working people in the Victorian era, as most spent up to 11hrs a day working in industries such as factories, mills, on the docks, or the railways. Many were employed on a full-time, live-in basis as domestic servants who would get one day a week to themselves. With limited time for courting, local traditions such as Valentine’s gave ordinary people the opportunity to find a potential suitor.
Different areas had different traditions to suss out a potential partners suitability. For women this usually took the form of cooking, she would make a special meal or cake for her boyfriend to prove how good a cook she would be when the two married. Food is still a big part of our Valentine’s today, with many couples choosing to have a Romanic dinner at home or at a restaurant.
A young working-class couple pose for a photograph in their yard during the First World War, 1914 – 1918. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.
Do you remember any local courting traditions in the Tees Valley? Perhaps there was a special place people would go to meet, or a local dish that was cooked for someone special?
If so we would love to hear all about it! Get in touch with us at – firstname.lastname@example.org
Our friends over at Teesside Archives have posted about the beautiful cards and letters in their collections for the last few years. Check out their posts here – Teesside Archives.