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Victorian Valentine Gifts Fueled Commerce

Victorian Valentine gifts offered hope to lovers and merchants alike. For centuries, February had been laced with love and pre-spring tingles. Ancient Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia on February 13-14 with violence, fertility and animal sacrifices. Catholics honored Saint Valentine, executed by Emperor Claudius II on February 14, around the year 270 A.D. By the 1800s, the day had been tamed and beautifully packaged. Romance and Victorian Valentine gifts fueled post-Christmas commerce and front-page headlines.

The Providence News, February 12, 1898, assured readers that Valentine’s Day was thriving.

“Every year when St. Valentine’s day comes around there is sure to be found a trite announcement in the newspapers to the effect that the custom of giving tokens on that day is “dying out.” But every year valentines appear as usual in the shop windows, and every one knows that men do not continue to offer merchandise for sale, which has ceased to be demanded.”

In her 2004 book Market Sentiments: Middle Class Market Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, historian Elizabeth White Nelson explores rise of sentimentalism and how it fueled commerce.

“By the late 1840s, a generation of consumers had grown up educated by sentimental texts and enticed by sentimental goods. This sentimental education about the market began in the 1820s as the number of prosperous Americans began to increase and the market for manufactured goods began to expand.”

With industrialism came mountains of affordable gifts. Improvements in transportation enabled consumers to travel to cities and town centers to buy them. Christmas had evolved into a huge hit for business. Then Victorian Valentine gifts turned love into big business. 

 “Merchants created business districts in which streets bustled with commercial activity. People worked in newly built commercial buildings that housed a wide range of new professions. Women and men shopped in elaborate new showrooms and, by the middle of the 1840s, amazing department stores such as A.T. Stewart in New York.”

Victorian Valentine Gifts Followed Trends

Valentine Cards–With industrialization, papers and printing became more available as did postage. Stationers in America began selling affordable lithographed valentines,

Esther Howland gathered lace, fancy papers and other supplies from England and New York City. She created one of the first female-run Valentine dynasties.

For those with less sentimental hearts, there were Vinegar Valentines. Their messages ranged from mildly teasing to sharply stinging.

Accessories were popular Victorian Valentine gifts. Parasols were must-have items for women of all classes—and a few brave gentlemen. They were objects of function that evolved into an art form in the 19th century.  Like hand fans, they were a necessity, a fashion statement and a means of communication. Hatpins made popular gifts. And they could double as weapons when necessary.

Spring Fashion–By the Gay Nineties fashion bloomed with stylish new colors and comforts. While designs were growing more streamlined than those of earlier decades, embellishments remained the key to a contemporary appearance. Vibrant new fabrics ruled the day. 

House plants were all the rage for Victorian Valentine gifts. The Fern Frenzy seized Britain from the 1850s through the 1890s. Amateur naturalists combed the countryside in pursuit of the trendy fern. Professional nurseries sprouted everywhere to meet the demand for new species. Waves of guidebooks were published to aid in the pursuit of the lacy treasures.

Gizmos and Gadgets were appearing every day. A favorite was George Eastman’s first affordable camera sold in 1888 was a simple box with a fixed-focus lens and one shutter speed. It was called the Kodak.

Board Games-The Nellie Bly board game was all the rage in 1889-1890 when she beat Jules Verne’s fictional record from Around The World In Eighty Days. Everyone was playing her board game by by the time she returned in 74 days.

The Peter Coddle Board Game was another favorite for parties.

Valentine’s Day Made Front Page Headlines

The Providence News, February 12, 1898, reported that hand made Valentine cards had been replaced with expensive and elaborate ones.

“The number of these missives sent on each’ 14th of February in the United States must amount to many hundreds of thousands, and the letter carriers and distributers regard the approach of St. Valentine’s day with sentiments the reverse of blissful.”

The Age-Herald, Birmingham, Alabama, February 13, 1898 wrote about the origins of the holiday and gift giving to honor of Saint. Valentine.

“And so when the anniversary of his birth came around
around they sent their sweethearts little gifts, with as much freedom as the strict customs of those days allowed.

From that time on the custom of observing Saint Valentine’s Day has grown, and now this gift day is almost a holiday, it is celebrated in the social World by gatherings and In the trade world by a great variety of pretty tokens offered for personal gifts.”

 Saint Valentine was not forgotten for hundreds of years, but his day of honor had evolved into a commercial bonanza.

“It would be Impossible to tell how the custom of honoring Saint Valentine will change in the next hundred years. Today you see the shops decked out with pretty tokens, satin trifles and all sorts of sweet smelling gifts. There are verse books written also for the day, and the windows are filled with trifles, costly and otherwise.”

The Dakota Chief, February 11, 1897 wrote about the origin of the day and where it was heading.

“ST. VALENTINE has always been a faithful ally of Cupid, although not intentionally, for the good bishop who suffered martyrdom in the third century had no idea of lending his name to posterity as a juggler of love charms. He was a good man, and after his death was canonized as a saint, and his name is perpetuated in a perennial love calendar, and the 14th of February is honored as St. Valentine’s Day.

An ancient tradition exists that birds choose their mates on St. Valentine’s day and the pretty poetic fancy which might
well be a reality—that being the first intimation of the spring season —was caught at eagerly by lovers and poets and the
golden age of commemoration begun. Prayers, such as the mortal ears of the good saint would have shunned, have been indicted to his name, and the invocations of Cupid are sent up yearly with promptitude and force.

It will be interesting so know if the marriage records are materially increased by the custom of sending valentines. but the statistics of love are mostly unreliable.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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