From Dropping Heads to Gifting Cards 

A Brief History of Valentine’s Day

and Worcester’s Historical Connection to the Holiday

By Randy Neves

In the 19th century, the city of Worcester Massachusetts was the epicenter of valentine production in the United States. This is largely thanks to Esther Howland, the daughter of Southwork and Allen Howland. In 1821, the Howland family moved from Plymouth to Worcester where Southwork would become a stationer, book publisher, and bookseller in the town. 

In 1847, Esther received an English valentine (valentines were in production in Europe at this time, but had not yet seen production in the U.S.) from a business associate of her father. This would spark Esther to experiment with designs. She convinced her father to order supplies such as laces, trimmings, and fancy paper from his English suppliers. 

Once her supplies arrived, Esther and her friends assembled cards in the Howland residence. Esther’s valentine business saw a boom in production as it became a massive success. Eventually, Esther created a partnership with Edward Taft, one of the other producers of valentines, who by his family’s account were the first to produce valentine cards in the United States. This partnership resulted in the creation of the New England Valentine Company, which soon after would be bought out by what was at the time the largest greeting card company in the world at that time, the Whitney Company.

But the history of Valentine’s day goes back much further than that. To begin with, who was St. Valentine, really? On Feb. 14, Valentine was beaten with clubs, stoned, and then was beheaded for helping Christians while under Roman Emperor Claudius II. This was something that, thankfully, wouldn’t become a modern day Valentine’s tradition.

This dark event eventually became a day of giving out cards, boxes of chocolates, and stuffed animals holding big red hearts. How did history transform this day from the day a man who was helping perform wedding ceremonies for Christians and Romans was killed, to a day for sharing love with others through cards and chocolate?

To answer this we must bring ourselves to when Valentine was awaiting his execution. He had formed a friendship with the daughter of his jailor, Asterius, a lieutenant of Claudius II. Legend says, the jailor’s daughter was blind, and Valentine was able to restore her sight. According to the book “A History of Valentines,” by Ruth Webb Lee, the night before his death, Valentine wrote a farewell message and signed it – From your Valentine

St. Valentine was executed on February 14, 270 A.D. a day which falls in the middle of the pagan Romans Feast of Lupercalia. This was a celebration of health and fertility. This celebration entailed a priest sacrificing a goat and dog. Afterward, the priest walked the Roman streets slapping women with goat hides, which was believed to make the women more fertile. 

Men would draw names of women from a jar, and whomever they selected would be their romantic partner throughout the festival, and potentially for the rest of their lives. Eventually, Pagan traditions were replaced with Christian beliefs, resulting in Pagan feasts becoming Christian feasts. This may be what contributed to the Feast of Lupercalia becoming associated with St. Valentine. This very custom of drawing names from a jar eventually was introduced to the English, who carried it on for centuries after the Pagan celebration faded away.

The history of Valentine’s Day is long and complex, with different cultures absorbing the beliefs of the Pagan Romans, as well as specific practices – like the drawing of names from a jar. Valentines Day has ingrained itself in many cultures resulting in its spread and evolution into one of society’s favorite holidays. 

Special thanks to the Worcester Historical Museum for access to their collection of valentines cards, records, and a thank you to Library and Archives Manager Wendy Essery who helped with my research and photographing of these historic valentine cards. Any questions, or interest in the Worcester Historical Museum you can contact them at (508) 753-8278 or visit their website at www.WorcesterHistorical.org for more information. Also be sure to visit soon,  for the month of February it is free admission into the museum!

Sources: Valentines – Worcester Historical Museum Library and Archives

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