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 right 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 day’s revival hardly stemmed from an unexpected burst of romantic love or a studied retrieval of folk customs. Rather, what made it all the rage was a new and fashionable commodity: commercially produced valentines, inventive seasonal prints that relied on lace-paper delicacy and ornamental frills for their appeal.
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 labor 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 leading up to St. Valentine’s Day, 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 favors 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 their marketing, these merchants effectively expanded the holiday’s time frame. References to “Valentine Week” or even “Valentine Month” soon appeared, as the process of reciprocating one’s valentines rippled well beyond the day itself. 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 the extension of the Christmas season backward to Thanksgiving would be a few decades later. In promoting the exchanges as a seasonal rite, the merchants of the 1840s helped change the way retailers viewed the whole of the American calendar.
Holiday marketing also cleverly expanded the range of relationships the cards could address. Promoting valentines as an appropriate token for sweethearts was an easy gambit; that usage built on prior poetic associations of the holiday with courtship. The proposition that valentines were meant for anyone and everyone was something new. Siblings could exchange them, aunts and uncles could give them to their nieces and nephews, grandparents to their grandchildren, friends to each other, schoolchildren to classmates, and so on. “Remember valentines are appropriate,” one merchant advised, “for brothers, sisters, relatives and friends.”
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 -- and that made them a versatile commodity with a more extensive market.
Not everyone was delighted with the new fashion and the role that printers and booksellers were playing in the holiday’s ascendance. “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 sounded even more exasperated, pronouncing “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 St. Valentine’s Day new life in American culture. And the booming market for their wares suggested to retailers everywhere that holidays held vast potential as widely shared rituals of consumption. All across the country, on Feb. 14 and on 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.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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