St. Valentine's Day, Who Began it! by Olive Thorne
There's one thing we know positively, that St. Valentine didn't begin
this fourteenth of February excitement; but who did is a question not
so easy to answer. I don't think any one would have begun it if he could
have known what the simple customs of his day would have grown into, or
could even have imagined the frightful valentines that disgrace our
It began, for us, with our English ancestors, who used to assemble on
the eve of St. Valentine's day, put the names of all the young maidens
promiscuously in a box, and let each bachelor draw one out. The damsel
whose name fell to his lot became his valentine for the year. He wore
her name in his bosom or on his sleeve, and it was his duty to attend
her and protect her. As late as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries
this custom was very popular, even among the upper classes.
But the wiseacres have traced the custom farther back. Some of them
think it was begun by the ancient Romans, who had on the fourteenth or
fifteenth of February a festival in honor of Lupercus, "the destroyer of
wolves"—a wolf-destroyer being quite worthy of honor in those wild
days, let me tell you. At this festival it was the custom, among other
curious things, to pair off the young men and maidens in the same chance
way, and with the same result of a year's attentions.
Even this is not wholly satisfactory. Who began it among the Romans?
becomes the next interesting question. One old writer says it was
brought to Rome from Arcadia sixty years before the Trojan war (which
Homer wrote about, you know). I'm sure that's far enough back to satisfy
anybody. The same writer also says that the Pope tried to abolish it in
the fifth century, but he succeeded only in sending it down to us in the
name of St. Valentine instead of Lupercus.
Our own ancestry in England and Scotland have observed some very funny
customs within the last three centuries. At one time valentines were
fashionable among the nobility, and, while still selected by lot, it
became the duty of a gentleman to give to the lady who fell to his lot a
handsome present. Pieces of jewelry costing thousands of dollars were
not unusual, though smaller things, as gloves, were more common.
There was a tradition among the country people that every bird chose its
mate on Valentine's day; and at one time it was the custom for young
folks to go out before daylight on that morning and try to catch an owl
and two sparrows in a net. If they succeeded, it was a good omen, and
entitled them to gifts from the villagers. Another fashion among them
was to write the valentine, tie it to an apple or orange, and steal up
to the house of the chosen one in the evening, open the door quietly,
and throw it in.
Those were the days of charms, and of course the rural maidens had a
sure and infallible charm foretelling the future husband. On the eve of
St. Valentine's day, the anxious damsel prepared for sleep by pinning to
her pillow five bay leaves, one at each corner and one in the middle
(which must have been delightful to sleep on, by the way). If she
dreamed of her sweetheart, she was sure to marry him before the end of
But to make it a sure thing, the candidate for matrimony must boil an
egg hard, take out the yolk, and fill its place with salt. Just before
going to bed, she must eat egg, salt, shell and all, and neither speak
nor drink after it. If that wouldn't insure her a vivid dream, there
surely could be no virtue in charms.
Modern valentines, aside from the valuable presents often contained in
them, are very pretty things, and they are growing prettier every year,
since large business houses spare neither skill nor money in getting
them up. The most interesting thing about them, to "grown-ups," is the
way they are made; and perhaps even you youngsters, who watch eagerly
for the postman, "sinking beneath the load of delicate embarrassments
not his own," would like to know how satin and lace and flowers and
other dainty things grew into a valentine.
It was no fairy's handiwork. It went through the hands of grimy-looking
workmen before it reached your hands.
To be sure, a dreamy artist may have designed it, but a lithographer,
with inky fingers, printed the picture part of it; a die-cutter, with
sleeves rolled up, made a pattern in steel of the lace-work on the edge;
and a dingy-looking pressman, with a paper hat on, stamped the pattern
around the picture. Another hard-handed workman rubbed the back of the
stamped lace with sand-paper till it came in holes and looked like lace,
and not merely like stamped paper; and a row of girls at a common long
table put on the colors with stencils, gummed on the hearts and darts
and cupids and flowers, and otherwise finished the thing exactly like
the pattern before them.
You see, the sentiment about a valentine doesn't begin until Tom, Dick,
or Harry takes it from the stationer, and writes your name on it.