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A Small History of Valentine’s Day

The origins of Valentine’s Day point towards the pagan feast of Lupercalia – the Roman festival of fertility. However, the 5th century saw Pope Gelasius I declare 14 February as ‘Valentine’s Day’ to reclaim the festival from the Romans and to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine. The definite identity of the martyred Saint is disputed but believed to be one of Valentine of Terni or Valentine of Rome. Either way, both were regarded as figures of heroism and compassion. It was not until the Middle Ages, however, that Valentine’s Day became romanticised.

The earliest known example of a Valentine’s card dates back to 1415, written by Charles, Duke of Orleans while imprisoned in the Tower of London. For many years, cards were all handmade and were usually decorated with ribbons, poetry, flowers and love knots – particularly in the Victorian period. Cards would be elaborate and personal. Suitors would often deliver cards personally, though discreetly by slipping them under the front doors of their recipients. Here is a selection of Victorian and Edwardian-era Valentine’s cards we hold in our collection.

 By the mid-20th century, Valentine’s Day itself was becoming widely commercialised with the mass manufacturing of cards, gifts and souvenirs – far closer to the day we recognise today.

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