There are few occasions in the modern world which do not have a greetings card to accompany them. One of the oldest of these occasions is Valentine’s Day. The oldest known printed Valentine’s card was published on 12th January1797 by John Fairburn of London. Decorated with cupids, doves and how flowers which were probably hand-coloured after printing, it was also pierced with tiny holes to give a delicate lace effect around the edges. As well as the intricate pattern, it also had a verse printed around the cards outside edge:
“Since on this ever Happy day,
All Nature’s full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design,
‘Tis but to be your Valentine.”
Sent by Catherine Mossday, this Valentine was posted to Mr Brown of Dover Place, Kent Road, London. The modern tradition of leaving the sender of the card anonymous had not yet developed, and inside the card, Catherine had written: ‘Mr Brown, As I have repeatedly requested you to come, I think you must have some reason for not complying with my request, but as I have something particular to say to you I could wish you make it all agreeable to come on Sunday next without fail and in doing you will oblige your well wisher. Catherine Mossday.’
Although this is the oldest printed Valentine’s card on record, Valentine’s greetings were being exchanged far earlier than the Eighteenth Century. The oldest surviving Valentine’s letter dates from 1415, and contains a poem, written in French, by Charles Orleans, which he sent to his wife, while imprisoned in the Tower of London after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.
The earliest known Valentine’s letter to have been written in English language appears in the Paston Letters, and again contains a poem. It was composed in 1477 by a woman named Margery Brews, and was sent to her fiancé, John Paston, “my right well-beloved Valentine.”
Such was the popularity of sending love poems on 14th February, that in 1797 a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained a selection of verses for those unable to compose their own. Once John Fairburn had printed the first Valentine’s card in the same year, other printers followed his example, and soon a number of cards were being designed and produced especially for the occasion. By 1835, 60,000 Valentine cards a year were being posted in Britain.
In the UK today, just under half of the population buy Valentine’s cards and gifts, with around £1.3 billion spent each year, and an estimated 25 million cards being sent.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.