This Is Why We Send Paper Valentines on February 14

The tradition began more than 1,500 years ago.

Valentine's Day has always been my favorite holiday. In elementary school, I spent hours making my own valentines, and even longer deciding which classmate would receive each glitter-covered card. Two decades later, handing out valentines to my friends, family, and coworkers still hasn't lost its magic (although this year I opted for cards from Minted instead of making my own). And since the National Retail Federation reports Americans spent $21.8 billion on Valentine's Day last year, I know I'm not the only one who loves sending out cards in red and pink envelopes.

People have been sending out valentines for hundreds of years, but how did the tradition begin? And why do we hand the cards out on February 14? I dug into the history of this holiday tradition to find out.

vintage hallmark valentine
A Hallmark Valentine's Day card from the early 1900s. Courtesy of the Hallmark Archives

Why Do We Send Cards on February 14?

Valentine's Day honors a Roman priest named Valentinus (also known as St. Valentine), who died on February 14, 269 A.D. And although the holiday wasn't celebrated until several hundred years after his death, the Greeting Card Association credits Valentinus with creating the very first handwritten valentine card. During the reign of Claudius II, Valentinus was put in jail and later developed a relationship with his jailer's daughter. On the eve of his execution, he wrote her a card and signed it, "From your Valentine."

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Valentine's Day cards were one of the first commercial greeting cards ever made, but the holiday wasn't made official until well after St. Valentine penned his love letter. In 498, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine's Day in honor of St. Valentine himself, the patron saint of love.

vintage valentine's day card with two kids holding a heart on it
One of the first Valentine's Day cards made by Hallmark in the early 1900s. Courtesy of the Hallmark Archives

The History of Valentine Cards

After Valentine's Day was declared an official holiday, it was another thousand years before the tradition of writing and sending paper valentines became a mainstream practice. According to the Greeting Card Association, the oldest known valentine still in existence today is a poem by the Duke of Orleans. The Duke was captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he penned a love poem to his wife.

A few hundred years later, the tradition really took off. In the early 1800s, paper valentines were being produced in factories in England. The cards were made with lace, ribbons, and paint, and often had phrases or poems handwritten on the front. The Museum of London estimates that by 1825, 200,000 Valentine's Day cards were given each year in London alone. After the invention of the penny postal service in 1840 (what would become modern-day postage stamps), the number had doubled. By 1871, 1.2 million cards had been processed by the General Post Office of London.

Around 1850, the tradition had crossed the Atlantic. A female artist named Esther Howland from Worcester, Massachusetts, was the first to create and produce valentines in America. By the early 1900s, a man named J.C. Hall was selling Valentine's Day postcards from Kansas City, Missouri. In 1910, Hall founded Hallmark Cards, Inc. and added greeting cards to his inventory in 1912. The company's first printed Valentine's Day cards appeared on store shelves in 1916, and the Valentine's Day tradition we know and love today was born.

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