When I was in elementary school, Valentine’s Day was one of my favorite holidays. There were cards. Chances are, your crush actually liked you back. And there was the chocolate – so much chocolate.
Little did I know that the roots of this vacation had little to nothing to do with my childhood experience. We were never taught that Valentine’s Day actually began with what was arguably a gruesome old festival that didn’t involve chocolate or the exchange of cute red and pink cards.
But love it or hate it, these are the things we associate with vacation today. After all, there’s a reason around 114 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged every year – that’s what we’re expected to do.
How the hell did we get from an ancient Roman festival to a holiday that forces many of us to spend no less than $ 147 on celebrating? It turns out that this story is thousands of years old – but we’ll try to condense it.
How Valentine’s Day started and developed
The roots of Valentine’s Day are cited by some sources as part of the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, mainly because it took place annually on February 15 – the day after the Valentine’s Day date observed today – and involved some very primitive forms of advertising and matchmaking. But it was also ancient Rome where Valentine’s Day was executed on February 14, around AD 278. According to legend, the night before his execution he wrote a letter to the daughter of his prison inmate with whom he had become friends and signed it, “From your Valentine’s Day.”
Over two centuries later, Pope Gelasius ordered Lupercalia to be replaced with the observation of Valentine’s Day on February 14th. Some believe that this set the tone for the day’s upcoming tradition of exchanging “messages of love,” perhaps in memory of the Valentine’s Day farewell letter.
The Romans are also credited with constructing the idea of Cupid – a god of love, often depicted with arrows which, as the legend says, inflict love on those who are struck by them. The Roman version of Cupid was adopted from Eros, a god of passion and fertility in Greek mythology. It seems that no one is entirely sure when Cupid was associated with Valentine’s Day, but the fact that both have their origins in ancient Roman culture suggests that there may have been a very early overlap between the two.
Shakespeare (and Chaucer) in love
When researching the history of Valentine’s Day, NPR’s Arnie Seipel found that it was first romanticized by classic authors like William Shakespeare in the late 16th century and Geoffrey Chaucer in the 13th century.
Peter Travis, English professor at Dartmouth, quotes Chaucer’s epic poem The Parliament of Fowls, which was one of the first literary references to Valentine’s Day, or “Seynt Valentynes Day” as Chaucer spelled it. Such a mention is made, explains Travis next to the line: “Now greet someone with your son who has shaken those Wintres-Weders too much.” In other words, when we celebrate love in the coldest depths of winter – for example in February – it is so heartwarming that summer feels less distant.
Some literary historians attribute the penetration of popular culture to Shakespeare with his composition of “Sonnet 18” – allegedly between 1593 and 1601 – a.k.a. “Should I compare you to a summer day?” It’s unclear when or how this particular work was linked to Valentine’s Day, but like Chaucer, Shakespeare compares love to the seasons.
“As the summer days may fade and fall into ‘colder months,’ ‘writes Shakespeare analyst Lee Jamieson,” his love is eternal. “
Of course, Valentine’s Day in Hamlet – written between 1599 and 1601 – is outright mentioned when the character Ophelia recites a song about a young lady’s experience of the holiday, which reads like “Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day” and “To be your Valentine’s Day.”
The 17th Century and Beyond
Valentine’s Day is believed to have found its way from Europe to the United States in the 1700s, coinciding with the establishment of the North American colonies between 1607 and 1770. According to HISTORY.com, it has become traditional “for friends and lovers of all walks of life to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes”. However, this was more common in England, where the Industrial Revolution began earlier and eventually included making “fancy Valentines” [that] were extremely expensive to import. “
It is said that one American woman, Esther Howland, was so intrigued when she received her first English Valentine’s Day greeting in 1847 that she was thrilled by the idea of making it in the United States. She was an early entrepreneur and instinctively believed that there might be an American market for these English-style formal greetings. After sourcing materials like high-quality paper and lace from her father, a stationery retailer, she created the earliest American Valentine’s Day greeting cards.
Howland is still nicknamed the Mother of American Valentines, and many cite her work as the start of a multi-million dollar industry. But it didn’t happen overnight – let’s see how their work paved the way.
A brief timeline of Valentine’s Day marketing
Charles II of Sweden starts communicating with flowers by assigning a different message to each type. This tradition supposedly brought love and romance to the red rose, creating the basis for exchanging this flower in the later, commercialized era of Valentine’s Day. However, it remains unclear whether a particular brand is responsible for the initial marketing of flowers as part of Valentine’s Day.
In England, where Valentine’s Day has been celebrated with exchanges of gifts and cards for many years, the Cadbury Chocolate Company is selling the first heart-shaped box of chocolates.
In Massachusetts, Howland makes a dozen Valentine’s Day sample cards and sends them with her brother for distribution during a sales trip for her father’s company – S.A. Howland & Sons – hoping to make $ 200. Instead, it returns at 25 times that amount, indicating much higher than expected demand.
Here is an example of a map Howland made around this time.
The first print advertisement for Howland’s cards appears in the Worcester Spy.
Conversation sweets are developed when Daniel Chase – the brother of the founder of the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO), Oliver Chase – uses vegetable dyes to print words on confectionery.
Howland incorporated their booming card business as the New England Valentine Company, which operates from home on an assembly line made up largely of their friends.
The New England Valentine Company is moving from Howland’s home to a factory on Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. That same year, the company released the Valentine Verse Book, which contained 131 “verses” that people could cut and paste into cards that came without a greeting – or those with a greeting that the shopper didn’t like.
Howland sells the New England Valentine Company to the George C. Whitney Company.
Whitney has acquired at least 10 competitors, including Berlin and Jones, who have become New York’s “largest Valentines maker”. Ten years later, the company moves to a large headquarters on Union Street in Worcester.
The Hershey Chocolate Company was founded, bringing what was previously “a European luxury product” to the US.
Conversation drops become heart-shaped.
American Greetings is formed and eventually becomes one of Whitney’s main competitors.
The Hershey Chocolate Company introduces its candy product Hershey Kisses. Interestingly, the product was supposedly called Kisses, because when a piece of chocolate fell on the conveyor belt at the Hershey factory, it sounded like a kiss.
This January, a massive fire destroyed much of Whitney’s headquarters. However, most Valentine’s Day products shipped out for the season, which had little impact on that particular holiday.
Hallmark is founded in the same year. Meanwhile, Florists’ Telegraph Delivery – now known as FTD – was also launched in 1910, which pioneered the remote ordering and delivery of flowers and provided a way to send them to loved ones far away.
Hallmark produces its first Valentine’s Day card.
The diamond company De Beers is launching its “A Diamond is Forever” campaign, sending the message that giving away high-end jewelry can be used as an expression of love.
In the 1980s, companies like Hallmark launched more Valentine’s Day commercials. In 1985, a commercial Hallmark referred to as “The Valentine’s Store” featured all of the cards and heart-shaped products that you can buy for your loved ones at their locations.
As if kisses weren’t romantic enough because of their name, Hershey made them a staple for Valentine’s Day with a little design tweak. The company started packaging Kisses candies in pink and red foil especially for Valentine’s Day.
As marketers continued to embrace new media, we saw an influx of high quality and insanely high budget commercials that marked the holiday from the 80s until today. One of the most famous and beautifully filmed commercials was a mini-romantic drama called “Le Film”, which advertises the Chanel No. 5 perfume.
In the ad, a man falls in love and runs away with an asterisk, played by Nicole Kidman. In the end, she returns to her famous life. As she walks the red carpet, he jots down all the things he will remember, including the smell of her Chanel No. 5 perfume.
Valentine’s Day is starting to go digital. On February 14, 2005, YouTube – originally an online dating website – made its debut. Co-founder Steve Chen still calls his invention the idea of ”three men on Valentine’s Day who had nothing to do”.
Ride-sharing company Uber is introducing Romance On Demand, which allows users to send flowers through the app on Valentine’s Day. This initiative would continue and on-demand skywriting would be available the following year.
Not accurate today, @netflix #HappyValentinesDay pic.twitter.com/pUK05gQ8Rs
– Tiffany Bukowski (@TheTiffy) February 14, 2016
NetBase, a social media analytics platform, publishes a Valentine’s Day sentiment analysis that measures how people interact with and discuss the holidays on social media. A total of nine million Valentine’s Day were mentioned, the vast majority of which mentioned one particular brand – Netflix. The top hashtag was #happyvalentinesday.
In the earlier years of the Google Doodle, Google used Valentine’s Day to raise awareness of a rare species. In 2017, a series of Google Doodles displayed in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day highlighted the stories of pangolins, the only species of mammal with scales that give each other Valentine’s Day gifts or serenade their partners. Here is an example:
While Google didn’t have to market itself with Doodles at the time, this shows an early example of a brand using their platform to creatively market another thing while on vacation.
2018 to today
In recent years, Valentine’s Day marketing campaigns have been completely digitized, with a particularly strong presence on social media. With these new opportunities, smaller businesses that don’t have Hallmark’s budget can easily raise awareness of their own brands while on vacation. Here’s an example of an Instagram post highlighting a fine Italian restaurant before Valentine’s Day:
While this real dog’s imitation of Lady and Tramp caught the attention of animal lovers on Instagram, the headline of this post encourages audiences to engage with the brand.
What Marketers Can Learn From Valentine’s Day Marketing
Like so many other holidays, Valentine’s Day has seen a transition into pop culture that has shaped the way it is perceived, discussed, and celebrated. Sure, it’s often accused of being nothing more than a money-making marketing vacation. However, the next time you hear someone refer to Valentine’s Day as a “trademark,” you’ll have a wealth of historical information to respond with.
From hearts to you, Happy Valentine’s Day. We will keep an eye on further developments.
Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published in February 2017 and has been updated for completeness and freshness.