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  • Karin Koehler (a1)

The custom of celebrating Valentine's Day dates back to the Middle Ages. The emergence of Valentine's Day as a commercial holiday, exploited above all by the greeting card industry, is more recent. In Britain, Valentine's Day cards emerged in the eighteenth century. As David Vincent writes,

The observance of 14 February underwent a metamorphosis during the eighteenth century which was later to befall many other customs. What had begun as an exchange of gifts, with many local variations of obscure origin, was gradually transformed into an exchange of tokens and letters, which in turn began to be replaced by printed messages from the end of the century. (44)

Early examples of pre-printed Valentine's Day stationery and manuals for the composition of the perfect valentine reveal that existing folk customs were swiftly adapted by modern print culture and an increasingly literate population. However, it was the 1840 introduction of Rowland Hill's penny post in Britain, alongside concomitant advances in American and European postal infrastructure, which led to a veritable explosion in the exchange of valentines, moulding the practice into a shape still recognisable today (see Golden 222). Hill not only democratised access to written communication by lowering prices, he also anonymised epistolary exchange. Prepaid stamps and pillar post boxes made it possible to correspond with anyone, anywhere, without giving away one's identity. And while sending an anonymous letter would have been perceived as a violation of epistolary decorum during the remainder of the year, on Valentine's Day it was not only acceptable but, as Farmer Boldwood hints in Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), expected. The opportunity for anonymous correspondence generated an enthusiastic response.

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Victorian Literature and Culture
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