In these modern times, Valentine’s Day means rushing to get last-minute restaurant reservations, or lurking at the drugstore until heart-shaped cartons of candy get slapped with a sale sticker. But how did we get here?
There is no single agreed-upon origin story. Some claim the holiday comes from the feast of Lupercalia, a celebration in which men killed goats and dogs, using their hides to whip women who would willingly line up for the fertility ritual. Others assert that Valentine was a priest in Rome during the 3rd century A.D. who officiated marriages between young couples, which had been banned according to the emperor’s military strategy. Valentine’s execution by beheading led to his martyrdom and day of honor.
Whatever their origins, our current traditions seem far more staid. Americans will spend $30 billion celebrating love today, including on greeting cards, which have been circulating in some form since at least the 15th century.
If you’re looking for inspiration, the Library of Virginia has a collection of a few hundred postcards and greeting cards dating back to the early 20th century.
“It’s part of our ephemera collection — or things that were meant to be thrown away,” Dale Neighbors, Visual Studies Collection coordinator at the library, told the PBS NewsHour. According to Neighbors, some of the cards came as private papers.
“It’s only recently people started to place a value on this sort of thing,” Neighbors said. In recent years, the library has started receiving groups of greeting cards on their own, rather than as part of a cache of other papers. The library also has a collection of holiday cards.
See an assorted collection of the vintage greetings below:
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