At the beginning of the 19th century, St. Valentine’s Day was of little note in American culture. It could easily have faded from the calendar out of Protestant indifference and civic irrelevance, forgotten along with days dedicated to St. Agnes, St. Anne and any number of others.
Instead, St. Valentine’s Day suddenly surged in popularity in the 1840s. As Graham’s American Monthly announced in 1849, Feb. 14 "is becoming, nay, it has become, a national holyday."
The revival hardly stemmed from an unexpected burst of romantic love or a studied retrieval of folk customs, but rather a new and fashionable commodity: commercially produced valentines with lace-paper delicacy and ornamental frills.
Holiday promotions and advertising, even for Christmas, were relatively undeveloped in the 1830s. The prevailing wisdom among employers was that holidays were impediments to enterprise: They were costly interruptions of labour and trade; they encouraged license, drunkenness and revelry; they diminished the virtues of industry and frugality. Time is money, after all.
St. Valentine’s Day provided an occasion to take another look at the economics of civic observance. Perhaps holidays offered a way to attract shoppers and create a ritual cycle for consumption; perhaps those shopkeepers of steady habits had made the wrong calculation.
In the weeks beforehand, merchants began promoting their stores as places of fantasy and celebration. Peterson’s of Philadelphia, for example, advertised itself as Cupid’s Headquarters; another shop proclaimed itself St. Valentine’s Theatre; still another St. Valentine’s Castle.
Often the stores used brilliantly decorated windows to back up these conceits. Who wouldn’t want to go and see a window boasting a bejeweled valentine with a $100 price tag, or one in which "Cupid, as large as life," presided? One Philadelphia company even claimed to have St. Valentine himself on hand to "distribute his favours of every description." Could Santa Claus in a department-store Toyland be far behind?
Businesses such as T.W. Strong’s, a New York City printer and retailer, were careful to offer annual reminders of the holiday’s approach well ahead of its actual observance. "Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day," the Boston Daily Evening Transcript commented in 1845, "as the advertisements in the papers from the ‘Court of Love’ have duly informed us fourteen days in advance of the interesting anniversary!"
Through marketing, these merchants effectively expanded the holiday’s time frame. References to "Valentine Week" or even "Valentine Month" soon appeared. As one retailer explained, "Valentines may properly be sent from the 14th of February to the first of March, and even later when answers are returned."
Seeing the holiday in such protracted terms was a commercial contrivance, much as extending the Christmas season backward to Thanksgiving would be a few decades later. In promoting the exchanges as a seasonal rite, merchants of the 1840s helped change the way retailers viewed the calendar.
Holiday marketing also cleverly expanded the range of relationships the cards could address. Promoting valentines as appropriate for sweethearts was easy, built on prior poetic associations of the holiday with courtship. But the proposition that valentines were meant for anyone was something new. Siblings could exchange them, grandparents could give them to nieces and nephews, friends to one another, schoolchildren to classmates, and so on.
Printers and publishers were hardly mere sentimentalists, however. Poisoned relationships presented their own possibilities as companies spun off valentines for insulting unattractive suitors, mean teachers, domineering women or henpecked men. The cards were positioned as brokers of an array of social relationships, good and bad, making them a versatile commodity with a bigger market.
Not everyone was delighted with the new fashion. "It is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not represent your life and talent," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an 1844 essay on gifts.
The next year, the Boston Daily Evening Transcript lamented: "We are afraid there are many such, so poor in intellect that they must buy their verses readymade. For on that day every bookstore is turned into a Valentine slop-shop."
In 1848, Philadelphia’s Public Ledger pronounced "the entire tribe of engraved, painted, printed Valentines an abomination, invented by cunning stationers and booksellers for pecuniary profit." It amounted to "a desecration of love’s high festival."
The critics were fighting a losing battle. The entrepreneurs of the 1840s and ‘50s gave new life to St. Valentine’s Day, and the booming market suggested that holidays held vast potential as widely shared rituals of consumption. On Feb. 14 and other holidays as well, we remain the heirs of that antebellum enterprise.
Leigh E. Schmidt is the Edward Mallinckrodt university professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.