A Handmade Holiday
The History + Art Behind Vintage Valentines
Valentine’s Day is a decidedly handmade celebration. How can it not be when love is so personal, friendships so treasured, and the traditions of the holiday so old, that a simple love note penned from the hand seems a most apropos gesture of the heart?
At one point or another, we’ve all ventured to fashion a Valentine card. Bits of construction paper, the frill of a doily, markers, crayons…these are the things of school days’ crafting that have survived memory and time. They’re still present at the most technologically advanced of today’s grammar schools and likewise, in our habits of dashing off a love note festooned with a doodled “heart” or an “x” and an “o”…or two.
We learned early on, the gesture of a simple card is perfect, if the sentiment is true. Valentine’s Day is best celebrated when we're given the excuse to express sweet feelings in a few, well-chosen words, or with the help of a more-clever writer’s imprinted ditty or eloquent dedication.
And while there are a legions of commercially produced Valentines onto which you can add that personal flourish, something given by hand – however simple, charms the recipient. Indeed since Valentine cards predate postal service by centuries, those most traditional among us still hand deliver cards – a gift in themselves -- with envelopes unsealed, simply tucked in as etiquette dictates all hand-delivered correspondence should be.
A Peek at the Sweetest Holiday’s History
While there is little reliable information to confirm one Saint Valentine, the most common of histories describe him as a Roman priest imprisoned and killed for marrying Christian couples. That said, we have acknowledged February 14 as the feast day of “Saint Valentine” since the 1400s. This feast day has grown in fact and fable, history and tale, and has long been associated with the declaration of courtly love.
The first statements of love in honor of Saint Valentine’s Day, were said to be sung or recited and are referred to as poetical or amorous addresses. Handwritten notes emerged in the 1400s with the very first written Valentines attributed to the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. During his time of confinement in the Tower of London, the besotted young Duke passed time writing romantic verses for his wife, far off in France. More than 60 of his heartfelt poems have survived and are preserved among the treasures of the British Museum.
So how did Valentine greetings become tradition in a time when reading and writing, paper and pens were not the things for the common man or woman? Love finds a way.
The tradition of putting forth heartfelt sentiments continued as it could among Western Europeans and by the Eighteenth Century exchanging written Valentines was in vogue among the educated and wealthy, and an emerging tradition among those with less means.