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Valentine’s Day at Bishop’s Stortford Museum

Friday, February 13, 2015

It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow and love is all around us! Here at Bishop’s Stortford museum we have been investigating the history of the day itself, from its origins as a festival involving nudity and whipping, to today’s commercially driven orgy of chocolate, jewellry, flowers and enormous teddy bears.

February as a month of romance has very ancient roots. In pre-Christian times Roman men would take to the streets to slap women with pieces of dried goats skin as a believed means of increasing fertility. Some traditions are probably best left in the past …

However, the first point in history when we can categorically point to Valentine’s Day as a festival on the 14th of February can be traced to the 15th century. It was thought that this date was significant  due to a popular belief that birds choose their mates on this day. This was also a time of year when ravens, crows and rooks would visibly be repairing their nests, whilst the spring songs of thrushes, finches and woodpeckers would begin to swell, marking the start of warmer weather.  Up until the 18th century the tradition was a little bit different to today; a Valentine’s day present would be given to the first person you see after waking up on the 14th. It was not until later  that it became customary to actually choose the object of your affections.  This was often accompanied by the singing of rhymes to your beloved. Here is one exceptionally romantic verse;

Good morrow Valentine,

How it do hail

When father’s pig die

You shall have its tail.

The habit of sending written compliments developed in the mid- 18th century, and by 1825 the London post office was handling more than 200,000 letters than on any other date! These often were very elaborate, with artificial flowers, real feathers and pieces of silk. The cult of the Valentine’s Day card had truly arrived!

After the 1860’s there was a decline in the popularity of Valentine’s Day. This was partly due to the rise of insulting and rude Valentine’s Day cards that brought the whole tradition into disrepute. It was only in the 1950’s that the tradition became popular again, inspired by commercially driven American influences.


14th century seal matrix, originally made in France ©Sarah Stephens Photography
19th/early 20th century pin cushion ©Sarah Stephens Photography

Above is an exquisite example of a Victorian pincushion from the Cecil Rhodes collection in the shape of a heart and with a beautifully written poem sewn on.

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