“It is the ceremony…never omitted among the vulgar, to draw lots, which they term Valentines, on the eve before Valentine Day. The names of a select number of one sex are, by an equal number of the other, put into some vessel; and after that, everyone draws a name, for the present called their Valentine, and is look’d upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.” (Bourne Antiquitates Vulgares 1725)
By “the vulgar” Bourne means the common people, but Valentine’s Day customs appear to have appealed to all levels of society – and nations. In this French fan of the end of the 18th century young women have lots drawn by cherubs for the name of their lovers, each of which has a list of their virtues attached – one young man has none (hence the weeping female in the centre!), one has one virtue and so forth. The luckiest young lady – whose name is Clemence – scoops the jackpot and her lover will be handsome, brave, honourable, true… I found the fan at auction at the same time as I was writing The Piratical Miss Ravenhurst – the heroine of which is called Clemence. Naturally, the hero has to find the same fan in a shop and buy it for her.
John Brand in his Observations on Popular Antiquities (1813) quotes examples of names being drawn for Valentines and also of various ways of divining who your lover will be – for example taking five bay leaves, pining one to each corner of your pillow and one to the middle the night before the 14th and you would then dream of your beloved. The sending of written Valentines or cards appears to have developed as the postal service improved at the end of the 18th century and the unimaginative male could turn to The Young Man’s Valentine Writer (1792) and copy out one of the sickly-sweet verses it contained.
Whether you picked your bay leaves, sent a card or received a delightful verse – happy Valentine’s Day!
(The little detail of the kissing couple and the naughty young lady at the top of this post are from the French series of prints Modes et Manieres)