UNLV history professor Elizabeth Nelson separates facts about the effects of marketing, consumerism, and social media on the holiday’s evolution from fiction about love’s golden age.
But as Americans strive to return to the good old days of romance, one UNLV history professor says they never actually existed.
“People love the idea that there were these wonderful eras before our own time when people celebrated Valentine’s Day in the most authentic way,” says Elizabeth Nelson, a 19th-century pop culture expert, who began researching Valentine’s Day three decades ago and literally wrote the book on marketing the holiday. “But there was always this long and complicated history about Valentine’s Day and people actually thought that it was too commercial and insincere from the very beginning.”
We sat down with Nelson to get a handle on the history behind the holiday and the ways advertising, consumerism, and social media have changed the way we celebrate.
Who is St. Valentine and why does he have a holiday?
Popular lore says that in 5th century A.D., there was a St. Valentine who was imprisoned for some transgression. The myth says the jailer’s daughter took pity, brought him food, and tried to save him. The incarcerated man sent her a note of thanks, signing it: “From your Valentine.”
The story falls apart on multiple historical levels — it seems unlikely that the jailer’s daughter would have been literate or that Valentine could’ve gotten paper and pen in a jail cell. But historians argue that — like Christmas, Easter, and many other modern holidays — Christians in the past tended to link saint holidays with pagan celebrations to help solidify conversion because people didn’t want to give up the ways in which they lived their lives. Blending these holidays allowed revelers to keep observing rituals from centuries ago. Over time, the original intent was forgotten.
In this case, there was also a Roman festival called Lupercalia, celebrating fertility, that might have influenced the celebration of Valentine’s Day. While we now celebrate Valentine’s Day in February, in the Middle Ages, Chaucer, in “The Canterbury Tales,” describes the holiday as occurring in May with imagery of springtime, birds, and budding flowers — which makes sense if linked to a Roman holiday centered on fertility.
What’s more, there are several saints throughout history named Valentine. But none of them are patron saints of love.
Who celebrates Valentine’s Day and why?
Valentine’s Day is mostly only celebrated in the United States and Britain. Before the 18th century, it was about exchanging gifts — gloves and spoons were traditional — and being someone’s valentine for a whole year. It sometimes served as a precursor to betrothal.
There are some interesting stories circulating about why it’s not as popular overseas.
Legend has it that in France, women who were rejected by their desired valentine would burn those men in effigy in a bonfire, causing a riotous ruckus — so allegedly, the government outlawed Valentine’s Day in the early 19th century.
In England, there was a practice called “valentining,” where kids would go door to door asking for treats, similar to Halloween. However, over time, these public celebrations got out of hand and sometimes devolved into violence and mob action. So the proper, genteel middle class opted instead to change the focus from human interaction to the less dangerous exchange of cards.
When did the commercialization of Valentine’s Day begin?
In the 1840s, Valentine’s Day took off in the U.S. as increased paper production and printing presses lowered costs and increased the number of pre-printed cards that people could exchange that featured fancy lace, pictures, and other decorations. And sometimes celebrants copied pre-written poems out of books called “valentine writers” that featured bawdy sexual innuendo. My favorite metaphor: grating someone’s nutmeg.
One of earliest American valentine businesses was run by Esther Howland in Worcester, Mass. She was the daughter of an insurance agent who ran a stationary store. She asked her father to import fancy paper, lace, and other decor from England to make valentines to sell. She employed female friends of the family, and asked her brothers to share sample valentines during their work trips as traveling salesmen. Esther received many orders and created a successful business during the 1850s and 1860s. Her story is quite amazing because we don’t think of women as running businesses in the 19th century.
Hallmark was founded in 1911, and technology made it possible to produce valentines in color and with various textures even more inexpensively than before. So, it’s really in the beginning of the 20th century that Valentine’s Day becomes part of a general movement to turn holidays into opportunities for selling things from candy to flowers to magazine advertisements. Valentine’s Day began to center more on children than before. People began exchanging valentines in school. Hallmark played a big role in marketing it to elementary students, shifting the focus to the competitive collecting of the most valentines rather than a single sincere one.
Has romance always been at the center of Valentine’s Day?
Initially, it was about having one valentine throughout the year and possibly becoming betrothed. But it evolved in the 19th century, sparking questions about the sincerity of exchanging pre-printed cards and the sanity of spending exorbitant amounts of money on them.
Valentine’s Day and the exchange of valentines were a way that people in the emerging middle class in the 19th century negotiated that complicated relationship between romantic love and the economic reality of marriage. You could marry someone for love, but you still had to marry someone for love who could support you because most middle-class women didn’t work. So, it was dangerous just to fall in love with people without knowing anything about them. The celebration of Valentine’s Day became a way for people to test the uncomfortable juxtapositions of what love and marriage should be and the reality of what was actually possible. So, not so different from today.
How has social media shifted the celebration of Valentine’s Day?
One of the things that’s nice about Valentine’s Day today is that there are a variety of ways to celebrate. There are Galentine’s and Single Awareness Day celebrations, you can give your pet a gift, or you can even celebrate alone. You don’t have to wait for the candy or the flowers to come. People still do those things, but there’s less pressure to conform to a public declaration or celebration of it. And that’s the thing about Valentine’s Day: It’s about what other people see you doing or getting. How do you perform the idea of love rather than actually express or engage in the act of love. It’s the representation of the commercial items — getting flowers delivered to your office or going to a fancy restaurant or getting a piece of expensive piece of jewelry. It’s what other people think of your couplehood rather than what you think about it.
It is likely that Facebook and other social media have made Valentine’s Day more viral and more toxic, but the framework was already there. It’s not so much that social media really changed the scrutiny that was already at the core of Valentine’s Day; it just created a whole new possibility for performing the act of Valentine’s Day. Because social media sites are all about performing your imagined best self, the level of scrutiny on how you celebrate Valentine’s Day or what you got for Valentine’s day is ratcheted up exponentially on Facebook . It is not just about the people in your office or in your neighborhood, everybody in your world sees whether your sweetie did right by you or not, or vice versa.