Valentine’s Day, contrary to popular belief, has a legitimate place in history and was not an imaginary holiday made-up by modern day advertising agencies and greeting card companies such as Hallmark. Although its precise origins are unknown, we do know that Valentine’s Day somehow came about centuries ago when one of the most austere saints in the Christian calendar, St. Valentine, and the most mischievous god of pagan mythology, Eros, become all tangled up in the name and observance of one day in each year, the 14th of February.
In earlier days, valentines were people selected by some quaint custom, by whom gifts were interchanged. In the Diary of Mr. Samuel Pepys, that inexhaustible storehouse of customs and manners of the middle seventeenth century, we find almost yearly allusions to the practice of selecting a valentine. The lady valentines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wore honored, not by anonymous verse, but by substantial gifts. It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that it became common practice in Great Britain to celebrate the romantic day not only with small gifts, but with handwritten notes. When we look at the calendar, the date is only 1800 when the manufactured valentine first began to steal away the early charm of St. Valentine’s Day.
Before Valentines could be purchased at a local store, lovers were constrained to construct their own special cards and prose. Materials for these were a quill pen, a sheet of thick writing paper, and an acquaintance with the muse of poetry. Failing this latter commodity, it was essential to have access to the pages of some obliging little chap-book called a valentine “writer.”
These sixpenny pamphlets, such as the Gentleman’s New Valentine Writer or the Bower of Cupid, were especially prepared for the lover’s convenience and provided choice specimens of poetic verse for almost all the degrees of love and sentiment that arose on St. Valentine’s Day. Accordingly, the young lover – who lacked poetic genius – could leaf through these little booklets and choose among a vast array of romantic, serious, or sometimes humorous verses and messages.
The following verse from The New English Valentine Writer provides an example:
“Was there ever an urchin like Cupid so sly? Well armed and mounted aloft in the sky; He wound, and we love, and then off he does fly. That I have wounded, alas, is too true, And that I can only be healed by you; Is likewise a fact. Ah! What shall I do? I’ll rely on thy pity, dear charmer of mine. Sure you’ll not break the heart of thy poor Valentine!”
Some publications included verses for the gentleman to send, in addition to “answers” or acceptances for which the lady could return. The following verses from The New English Valentine Writer provide examples of valentines with “answers” or acceptances:
“Fate decrees, it must be so, That you must my passion know. Know that I am deep in love, And your kindness wish to prove; Let me not in vain implore, For ‘tis you whom I adore; And with you would live and die, Think and send a kind reply.”
“I lov’d thee when a boy dressed in thy infant charms, And unblam’d clasp’d thee in my tender arms, I love thee still and do they suit approve, And wish to enjoy the object of my love. I long to have thee to myself alone, Nor fear they censure now my love is known.”
“If love’s a crime, then I’m a rogue, For all the passion’s much in vogue; Cupid’s in fault, ‘twas he that set, Me thinking about thee my Bet, Then punish him be easing me, ‘Twill blunt the wanton’s shaft he’ll see; Perhaps he’ll promise ne’er again, To give us honest mortals pain.”
“For your passion I’m sorry, but don’t be enrag’d When I tell you in earnest I’ve been long engag’d, Get what comfort you can, I assure you poor Ned, It is Dick, and Dick only, shall share half my bed.”
These little books were prepared annually by enterprising booksellers with titles especially chosen for their alluring sound, such as the Cupid’s Annual Charter and The School of Love. One pamphlet, Cupid’s Messenger, claimed to be stored with “sundry sorts of serious, witty, pleasant, amorous, and delightful letters.” For the less serious couple, The New Quizzical Valentine Writer contained a “most excellent collection of all the humorous, droll, and merry valentines ever published.”
Moreover, ladies were provided with a valentine writer especially designed for their own needs, called the Every Lady’s Own Valentine Writer, which boasted “humorous dialogues; witty valentines with answers; pleasant sonnets on love, courtship, marriage and beauty.”
The following acrostic verse is from Every Lady’s Own Valentine Writer:
V ain world farewell, I live for love,
A mbition ne’er my soul shall move;
L ove is the all of my desire,
E ach thought, each wish, it can inspire,
N e’er can wealth my hopes excite;
T itles are mere trifles light;
I n a sound there’s no delight.
N ames, can never joy assign,
E xcept that of Valentine.
Furthermore, tradespeople had countless verses for their peculiar use; many valentine pamphlets provided valentine poems for almost every known trade or profession, such as the brick-layer, the tailor, the butcher, or the fishmonger. One will observe the delicate play upon words in the lines that relate to a particular occupation. There are puns and double meanings running through them all, that make them spicy reading indeed. A verse to a butcher runs as follows:
“So nice you dress your Lamb and Veal, My passion I cannot conceal; But plainly must declare to you, I wish that you would dress me too. When at your shop you take your stand, Your knife and steel within each hand; I listen to your pleasing cry, Which sounds so shrill, d’ye buy, d’ye buy. Now February shows his face; And genial Spring comes on apace; Like birds, ah! prithee let us join, Upon the day of Valentine.”
The following doubtful rhymes do not seem to hamper in the least the sincerity of the poulterer’s emotion:
“I do wish for my own picking To ‘ve a delicate sweet chicken: For thy sake I’ll be quite spruce, Tho’ I may lie call’d a goose.”
The following grocer’s verse is given because of its answer. He sighs:
“Your breath is all-spice, I declare, And you’re so neat and handy, That you’re as sweet, I think, my fair. As plums or sugar candy. Be favourable, I implore, These verses kindly weigh; And if you will my heart restore, I’ll treat you to some tea.”
The bribe of “some tea” in the last line seems not sufficient to his “fair,” for she answers scornfully:
“Your letter I’ve weighed, Am truly afraid, Many pounds you’re deficient in weight; And so, Mr. Grocer, I’d have you to know, Sir, I care not a fig for your treat.”
The verse and answer between the coach-man and the nursery maid show that valentine writers also provided not so delicate prose for rejections.
The Coach-Man to the Nursery Maid:
“So fond of children you are grown, I wish you had some of your own, I think my dear, if you’ll consent, That I in that could give content; How charming it would be to see, A little baby, just like thee; Say if you like this plan of mine, As you’re today my Valentine.”
The Nursery Maid’s Answer:
“Pray Mr. Smack drive on, gee-ho, With me our courtship will not do, Your face is ugly, but your mind Is ten times uglier, I find; I am a girl that’s very nice, And won’t be bought at your price; Your Valentine I will not be, So prithee think no more of me.”
From the pamphlets and booklets provided especially for them, it would seem that the ladies and gentlemen of centuries past set aside Valentine’s Day to sigh, either anonymously or openly, their unrequited affection. Armed with a quill pen, gilt-edged letter paper, and a valentine writer our ancestors celebrated the romantic February holiday long before the arrival of Hallmark.