Book Review: Symbols of Love and Valentine’s Day

Book Review - Valentine Symbols

By Kathy A. Megyeri 

Book:  “Hearts, Cupids, and Red Roses, the Story of Valentine Symbols,” by Edna Barth and illustrated by Ursula Arndt 

Cupids, heart shapes, turtle doves or love birds, clusters of rosebuds, hearts of paper lace—all are symbols of Valentine’s Day, a time when people express friendship, affection and love, especially for someone special. Edna Barth’s study of legends and symbols traced to their early beginnings in various countries is a treasure for all who celebrate love. Barth (1900-1981) was a librarian, teacher and editor of books for young people before becoming a children’s book author.  

Legends of St. Valentine abound. The most prevalent is the legend of a Valentine who was seized for helping Christians being persecuted by Claudius II. During Valentine’s time in prison, the jailer and his family were so impressed with his sincerity that they became Christians themselves. After Valentine miraculously restored the sight of the blind jailer’s daughter, he sent her a farewell message on February 14, the date of his execution, and signed it “From your Valentine.” From his burial site, a pink almond tree burst into bloom. 

The oldest known valentine in letter form was written in 1477 by Margery Brews and sent to John Paston, Margery’s “right worshipful and well-beloved Valentine.” For the next hundred years, some of England’s finest writers – including Robert Herrick and Samuel Pepys – wrote valentine poems.  

Related: The Perfect Valentine’s Day Menu

Lacy valentines reached their peak during the Victorian era (1840-1860) and were enhanced with silk, satin, chiffon, and real lace. In 1845, the machine age brought new printing methods and the sending of valentines became very popular. In 1848, Esther Howland of Massachusetts imported lace colored paper and flowers and became the premier maker of lacy valentines which today are collectors’ items.  

During the Civil War, valentines often included a lock of hair. During WWI, valentines had patriotic themes. Card companies like Norcross and Hallmark promoted the true-love knot in addition to hearts, birds, flowers, and hands. Germans who settled in Pennsylvania created love tokens of single and double hearts. Sailors at sea created designs on scrimshaw

Related: Country Living: 70 Top Valentine’s Gifts for Her and Him

Kate Greenaway sold her first design of charming children dressed in quaint costumes for $15 and sales spiked to 25,000. In 1925, Lady Jeanetta Tuck suggested to her husband who owned a greeting card business that the firm’s Diamond Jubilee should be celebrated by sending valentines. Today, in addition to cards, candy, flowers, jewelry or perfume are the preferred gifts. 

This exhaustive history, beautifully presented with drawings, continues with a discussion of love birds, hearts, classroom Valentine boxes, the growth of the heart motif, Cupid, the rose, paper lace and the colors of red, pink and white. All suggest that despite wars and world problems, romance lives on and expresses something vital. The book concludes: ”…human beings will continue to fall in love and marry. To be alive and a part of all this is truly delightful.” 


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