Local historian Keith Johnson looks at how Lancastrian lovebirds celebrated St Valentine's Day in years gone by
St Valentine’s Day is a time of romance and affection, celebrated with the sending of greetings, particularly since Victorian Days in Lancashire.
Many are the local folk who received a message of love from a suitor or yearned to know the identity of the one who penned the affectionate words.
There are a number of St Valentines, of whom little is known, save that relics of them exist.
The authentic Saint Valentine was a Roman priest, cast into chains by Emperor Claudius II, on the charge that he assisted the martyrs during the Emperor’s persecution of the Christians.
Legend tells us this St Valentine restored sight to his gaoler’s blind daughter whilst imprisoned. Yet in the year 269AD, on February 14, the Saint’s head was lopped off by this enlightened monarch.
There seems little enough in Valentine’s life or death to connect him with love protestations or Cupid’s arrow, however, February 14 was the traditional day for the mating of birds, and when the Saint was executed he was regarded as having a supernatural but benevolent care of all affairs of the heart, and his day was commemorated for the sending of amatory epistles.
Valentines at first were entirely handwritten and painted.
Many were in the form of verses and the poets and scribes such as Lydgate, Chaucer, Drayton and Shakespeare wrote lyrical and sentimental verses. As the 18th century drew to a close the first commercial Valentine’s appeared, being engraved or lithographed.
Certainly, with a life on the ocean waves for many a sailor, the naval Valentine’s gradually became popular as they romanced their sweethearts from afar.
By the start of the Victorian period, perforated and lace embossed cards were all the rage.
The popularity of Valentine’s Day was apparent in 1865, despite the poverty of the ‘cotton famine’ years, when it was recorded that love letters had arrived in Preston from all parts of the kingdom.
The largest number of extra letters ever known, both in and out of the Post Office, was reckoned to be more than 24,000 during the week.
A decade later it was reported that from dawn to midday on St Valentine’s Day the postmen would be carrying about Cupid’s despatches by the hundredweight. Despite the fact that it was a Sunday their toils continued as they shouldered the large leather bags stuffed with the most passionate decelerations of affection.
All to be handled with care, these parcels of passion often containing roses and blooms entwined with pink silk. Many of them costing £1 or £2 and containing embossed paper with lovely messages. It was a trend growing in popularity because, in 1878, an official statement from the Post Office was that on St Valentine’s Day no less than 95,000 missives had been dealt with – well in excess of the usual daily average of 50,000.
In February 1887 the Lancashire Daily Post marked the first St Valentine’s Day since commencing publication with a verse entitled ‘The Prettiest Girl’.
We had such fun on Valentine’s Day
With the girls who live over the way!
Teddy and I, and Jed and Joe,
Picked out the prettiest girls, you know,
And wrote them things about ‘Violets blue,
And sugar is sweet, and so are you.
And only that Bobby said it was mean,
I wanted to write, “The grass is green,
And so are you.” And send it out
To a girl we fellows don’t care about.
During the 1890s novelty Valentines, many of them boxed, were increasing in popularity with cages, flower filled shoes, fans, watering canes and folding gates all depicted in card among the latest gimmicks.
Humour was also beginning to play a more prominent part in the verses, often of a venomous flavour. They were often directed at the conceited or flirtatious with their cruel content showing a lack of sympathy for the receiver.
Many a Valentine was delivered during the years of the First World War and was an inspiration for those on the foreign battlefields, or a comfort for those back home.
By 1933 the Post was reporting the age old custom was far from dead. The days of girls associated with crinoline and ribbons had gone, and in an age of platinum blondes, sleek cars and cocktails it was simple cards with crimson hearts and cupid’s arrow.
Up to the Second World War and beyond the celebrations of St Valentine’s Day as a romantic occasion
continued with Valentine Balls being very popular at numerous dance halls, including the Public Hall and the Queen’s Hall in Saul Street.
The message being ‘bring your Valentine with you – or meet her here’. Quite an invitation for three shillings admission – and if you were a member of HM Forces it was a shilling less.
From the 1960s the trend has been away from the tender Valentine to the more direct or comical illustrations and verses. By the end of that decade over 10m Valentines were being posted, with one in five of the population happy to continue the tradition.
According to a more recent survey, the older the sender the sweeter the Valentine.
In these days of instant messaging it is possible to send a message of love or affection electronically, yet the popularity of Valentine greetings remains with online suppliers happy to send your message through the post for you.
The postman’s bag may not be bulging quite the same, but many a love struck soul will be happy if a card drops through their letterbox – even if the sender leaves you curious by not revealing their identity.