Origins of Valentines 

As early as the fourth century B.C., the Romans engaged in an annual young man’s rite of passage to the god Lupercus. The names of teenage women were placed in a box and drawn at random by adolescent men. Thus, a man was assigned a woman companion, for their mutual entertainment and pleasure (often sexual), for the duration of a year, after which another lottery was staged.
     Determined to put an end to this 800-year-old practice, the early church fathers sought a "lovers" saint to replace the deity Lupercus. They found a likely candidate in Valentine, a bishop who had been martyred some 200 years earlier.
     Traditionally, mid-February was a time for Romans to meet and court prospective mates. Young men offered women they admired and wished to court handwritten greetings of affection on February 14. The cards acquired St. Valentine’s name.
     As Christianity spread, so did the Valentine’s Day card. The earliest one was sent in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. It is now in the British Museum.
     The first American publisher of Valentines was printer and artist Esther Howland. Her elaborate lace cards of the 1870s cost from five to ten dollars, with some selling for as much as thirty-five dollars. Since that time, the Valentine card business has flourished. Except for Christmas, Americans exchange more cards on Valentine’s Day than at any other time of the year.

Excerpted from "Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday things," Charles Panati, Harper & Row, NY 1987 pp 50-52.

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