Valentine’s Day was a well-established holiday by the 1860′s. Although there were several Christian martyrs named Valentine, the day probably took its name from a priest who was martyred about ad 270 by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus. According to legend, the priest signed a letter to his jailer’s daughter, whom he had befriended and with whom he had fallen in love, “from your Valentine.” The holiday also had origins in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, held in mid-February. The festival, which celebrated the coming of spring, included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery. At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day. It came to be celebrated as a day of romance from about the 14th century. Eventually the custom of sending anonymous cards or messages to those whom one admired became the accepted way of celebrating Valentine’s Day. There was an increase in interest in Valentine's Day in the United States in the mid-19th century.
During the War Between the States it was a common occurrence for loved ones at home to receive letters and small items from their soldiers off at war but during special holidays, those items often took on a more romantic and sentimental tone. Harpers Weekly, the leading Newspaper of the time period, even published a special Valentines Days greeting page in 1864 celebrating the Valentine tradition. Recognizing that many soldiers sent letters and cards, to their sweethearts back home, Harper's weekly celebrated undying love on Valentine’s Day during the War with a special edition devoted to soldiers' love.
Some soldiers could not read or write and instead had friends write love letters and make-shift cards to their loved ones. But, most soldiers bought Valentine Cards from a Sutler, who besides carrying supplies for warfare and comfort, also sold stationery and greeting cards. These manufactured cards were made by companies that had started in the mid-19th century and when War broke out they began targeting soldiers away from home. Some of the cards showed sweethearts parting and others pictured battlefield tents.
Other Valentines were more creative, such as a heart split in two, reflecting the absence of their loved ones and the soldiers wishing they could be with them. Soldiers that were more artistic made window Valentines. These cards had flaps that revealed a soldier inside a tent waiting for his sweetheart with open arms. Another popular novelty during the War was a Valentine containing a lock of hair from a girlfriend or wife, which the soldiers treasured. Also, the Puzzle Purse was invented during this time as well. These were made by folding the four corners of a square envelope inward and writing a message on the inside of each flap. Many times the puzzle contained a piece of jewelry or a lock of a sweetheart’s hair.
Love letters between soldiers and their sweethearts have become collectors’ items and family heirlooms. These serve as a reminder that love and romance is present in even the most difficult circumstances. Not all Valentines were a happy occasion to read however. One such Valentine is a rather elaborate one from a Confederate soldier named Robert King to his wife Louiza. He used his penknife to cut one sheet of a newspaper and a used envelope together so that he could intertwine the two in a basket weave pattern while serving on the front lines. After finishing, he folded it and sent the memento to his wife Louiza in Montgomery County, Virginia, probably in a folded piece of paper because envelopes were hard to come by during the war. Once in her hand, Louiza could then open the heart and find that the seemingly random dotted holes were actually intentional so that the valentine turned into the shape of two people sitting opposite one another, crying. Also enclosed are two other trinkets with basket weaves- one that looks like a spade and one that is similar to a book mark. The memento must have come as a bittersweet token of his affection when Louiza received it: Robert King died in battle and never saw his wife or their child again.
So, give your sweetheart a big hug on Valentine's Day and remember that life is short.