This postcard was sent for leap year 1908.
BY ROSEMARY FETTER
Perhaps the brightest spot in February, along with this year’s Super Bowl, will be Valentine’s Day, highly anticipated by some and dreaded by others. The story behind some of our traditions is complicated and somewhat confusing, as is love itself.
The Greeks and the Romans considered lust and romantic love important enough to assign several deities to the task. The Greeks had Aphrodite (Venus for the Romans), the goddess of love and beauty, Peithos (goddess of seduction) and Eros (Cupid), often depicted as a chubby little cherub clutching arrow-skewered hearts. The Greeks also had an entire subclass called the Erotes, seven more gods including Himerus (god of desire), Hymen (god of weddings), and Peitho (goddess of sexual desire). Not to mention other gods including Ganymede (god of homosexuality), and Pan (god of the wild and rampant sexuality). The Romans pretty much stuck to Venus, Cupid and Sudela, a Roman goddess of desire, and they did have Bacchus, the god of wine and wild parties. Anyone who has ever visited the ruins of Pompeii and caught a glimpse of the artwork can have no doubt concerning the importance of sex to the ancient Romans.
Postcards with artwork by Ellen Clapsaddle were popular in the early part of the century.
Valentine’s Day actually began as a rite of passage for young Roman males. As part of the ceremony, the elders held a lottery. The names of eligible girls would be placed in a box and the boys would draw at random to choose a mate for the forthcoming year. At the end of the year, the couple could stay together if they chose or go back for a second rounded if things weren’t working out. For a short-term contract, it worked as well as can be expected.
Fast forward several centuries to St. Valentine, a Christian priest who was executed by Roman Emperor Claudius II on Feb. 14, which just happened to be the day of the love lotteries. (History tells us that there were actually three saints named Valentine, but that’s another story.) Romantic legends abound about Valentine, but it was mostly through coincidence he became associated with romantic love.
During the late 12th century, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of England’s King Henry II, gave romantic love (and feminism) a boost by initiating the Courts of Love, which celebrated chivalry and chaste adoration from afar. While it encouraged better treatment of women, unfortunately the drama of hopeless romantic love has been with us ever since.
The oldest surviving Valentine’s card dates back to the 15th century, sent by Charles, duke of Orleans, from the Tower of London to his second wife, Bonne, who unfortunately died in childbirth before he was released. The duke was a musician and scholar who wrote poetry about love, making several references to St.
Valentine during his 25-year captivity after the battle of Agincourt in 1415. (Unlike most nobles, he was not offered for ransom due to his proximity to the French throne, although he was allowed to live in the manner of a noble, which beats chains and a dungeon.) His poem mournfully expresses the contrast between Chaucer’s happy mating of birds in the spring and his own prolonged confinement. When he was finally released (rumored to be speaking better English than French) he married a third time to Marie of Cleves and lived to age 70. He was interesting enough to be named a character in Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
Valentines were sporadically exchanged over the next few centuries, but in the 1850s, the custom blossomed. Cards ranged from simple woodcut varieties to elaborate artwork decorated with gold or silver leaf, paper or fabric lace, silk flowers, and the ever popular embossed cupid. They often went unsigned or signed with initials only, to add to the mystery.
In America, Esther Allen Howland is often considered the Mother of Valentines. However, recent research maintains that Jotham Wood Taft actually made the country’s first valentines in Grafton, Mass., while Esther began as one of his designers. She later became very successful in her own right. Because Taft was a Quaker, none of his cards ever bore his name, in part due to a promise he made to his mother. In any event, both of their valentines were quite expensive even in 1850, ranging from $5 to nearly $30, the equivalent of several weeks’ pay for those of modest means.
Along with cards, a favorite Valentine’s Day gift has long been chocolate, which entered the picture as an aphrodisiac early in the game. The first to enjoy the love potion, the ancient Aztecs, drank it straight and bitter, without the sugar and fat in mixtures we love today. The Spanish brought chocolate to the New World in the 16th century. In 1643 when the Spanish princess Maria Theresa gave her fiancé Louis XIV an engagement gift of chocolate wrapped in a fancy box, he was so taken with his gift that he appointed Sieur David Illou to manufacture and sell chocolate. He raved about its erotic potential along with Casanova and the Marquis de Sade. All three reputedly, did quite well romantically, with or without chocolate.
In the 1800s, the Victorians favored flowers as a Valentine’s gift. Instruction manuals for 19th century courting couples usually devoted at least a chapter to the subject of floriography, which attached special meaning to every flower. Although the message might vary slightly (and sometimes radically) depending on the book, complex sentiments could be attached to floral arrangements, forcing the recipient to spend hours trying to decipher the meaning of a bouquet.
The Victorians and Edwardians also loved jewelry. Oddly, enameled serpents and snakes with diamonds or garnets for their eyes were all the rage. Interestingly, Prince Albert’s ring to Victoria, a snake with its tail in its mouth, was considered a symbol of love eternal. Also popular, cameo and intaglio (the reverse of a cameo) on both brooches and rings were made from shell, coral or stone and sometimes surrounded by precious gems. Hair jewelry was an odd product of the era in both England and the United States. Tightly woven strands of human hair would be used in instead of gold chain in a necklace or bracelet.
The Victorians attached special meanings to all things romantic, especially gifts exchanged between lovers. Gloves and gauntlets were always popular, since they signified honesty and friendly intentions. A fan for a lady would spark the flame of love, while a pair of doves bespoke marital harmony. The silver spoon stood for purity and true beauty, particularly when decorated with a scallop shell symbolic of the love goddess Aphrodite.
Along with the possibilities mentioned above, today’s favorite gift choices include music, body care products, perfume and even electronics. However, one can only imagine what the Victorians would think if they heard Beyoncé on iPhone singing “My Heart Will Go On.”
Winged cupid was often portrayed as a plump little cherub.
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