Canivet, or Devotional, a rectangle of cut white paper lace on pink background with flaming heart stabbed with crossed swords hovering over another heart and flowers in painted in center, Flemish, 18th century

Valentine's Day in the 18th Century

PMH Staff
Published on
August 26, 2023
February 14, 2023

Did Americans celebrate Valentine's Day in the 18th Century? Well, sort of! Dating back to the Romans mid-February was a time for fertility and romance, and during the Medieval period of the Feast of St. Valentine took on new meaning.

An 18th century Flemish Canivet or Devotional made of delicately cut paper and vellum. The inscription reads: "Après Dieu à Marie le Consacré à ma Vie," or "After God, to Mary I devote my life." Canivets were the religious predecessors of modern Valentine's Day cards. From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See more historic Valentines from the Met collections.

Did Americans celebrate Valentine's Day in the 18th Century? Yes! Although, not quite like we do today. Most of our modern associations of chocolate and flowers with Valentine's Day date to the 19th century. But a few of our practices, including love letters, were common during the 18th Century.

Dating back to the ancient Romans mid-February was a time for fertility and romance. February 15 was traditionally Lupercalia, a festival of purification and fertility, associated with Juno and Cupid. In the 5th century, Pope Galasius I outlawed non-Christian festivals, and was particularly forceful in his ultimately successful attempts to suppress Lupercalia. It was under his papal tenure that the Feast of St. Valentine was declared on February 14 – Valentine’s day of martyrdom – just one day before Lupercalia. The Feast of St. Valentine commemorated a 3rd century Roman priest who, among other things, performed marriage rites for Christian couples at a time when Christianity was illegal. In the Medieval period of the Feast of St. Valentine took on new meaning.

In the 14th century, Europeans believed that February 14 was the beginning of mating season for birds. Chaucer’s 1382 “Parliament of Fowles” was written to commemorate the first anniversary of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, who had married the year before, both aged just fifteen years old.

In Middle English:
"For this was on seynt Valentynes day
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make
Of every kynde that men thynke may
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was, that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place."
In modern English:
"For this was on Saint Valentine's Day
When every bird comes there to choose his match
Of every kind that men may think of
And that so huge a noise they began to make
That earth and air and tree and every lake
Was so full, that not easily was there space
For me to stand—so full was all the place."

The connection to mating birds also gives us the terminology "lovebirds." The rise of courtly love in the Medieval period strengthened the association of Valentine’s feast day with romantic love. This association continued into the 18th century. By the 1750s, it was a popular holiday in London.

In 1754, a series of essays entitled The Connoisseur was published, essentially an advice column written by “Mr. Town, Critic and Censor-General.” Featuring letters from those seeking advice, it includes several references to Valentine’s Day. Although Mr. Town takes a rather dim view of public displays of affection, especially among older couples, and of attempts at divination in the romance department, the two letters below show how closely Valentine’s Day was associated with romantic love in this time period.


NUMBER VII. THURSDAY, March 14, 1754.

Paenitet hospitii, cùm me spectante, lacertos

Imponit collo rusticus ille tuo.

Oscula cùm vero coram non dura daretis,

Ante oculos posui pocula sumpta meos.

THE ingenious correspondent, to whom I am obliged for the following letter, will, I hope, excuse the alterations, which I have taken the liberty to make in it.

To Mr. TOWN.


I SHALL make no apology for recommending to your notice as CENSOR GENERAL, a fault which is too common among married people. Love is indeed a very rare ingredient in modern wedlock, nor can the parties entertain too much affection for each other; but an open display of it on all occasions renders them ridiculous.

A FEW days ago I was introduced to a young couple, who were but lately married, and are reckoned by all their acquaintance to be exceeding happy in each other. I had scarce saluted the bride, when the husband caught her eagerly in his arms, and almost devoured her with kisses. When we were seated, they took care to place themselves close to each other, and during our conversation he was piddling with her fingers, tapping her cheek, or playing with her hair. At dinner they were mutually employed in pressing each other to taste of every dish, and the fond appellations of  "my dear, my love, &c." were continually bandied across the table. Soon after the cloth was removed, the lady made a motion to retire, but the husband prevented the compliments of the rest of the company by saying, "We should be unhappy without her."

As the bottle went round he join'd her health to every toast, and could not help now and then rising from his chair to press her hand, and manifest the warmth of his passion by the ardour of his caresses. This precious fooling, though it highly entertained them, gave me great disgust, therefore, as my company might very well be spared, I took my leave as soon as possible.

THIS behaviour, though at all times improper, may in some sort be excused, where perhaps the match has been huddled up by the parents, and the young people are such new acquaintance, that they scarce ever saw each other 'till their marriage. A pair of loving turtles may be indulged in a little amorous billing at their first coming together [editor's note: lovebird reference!], but this licence should expire with the Honey-moon, and even in that period be used but sparingly.

NOTHING is more common than to see a new-married couple setting out with a splendor in their equipage, furniture, and manner of living, which they have been afterwards obliged to retrench: thus it happens when they have made themselves remarkable by a show of excessive love. They begin with great eclat, are lavish of their fondness at first, but their whole stock is soon wasted, and their poverty is the more insupportable, as their former profusion has made it more conspicuous. I have remarked the ill consequence of this indiscretion in both cases: one couple has at last had separate beds, while the other have been carried to the Opera in hackney chairs.

TWO people, who are to pass their whole lives together, may surely find time enough for dalliance without playing over their pretty tricks in public. How ridiculous would it appear, if in a large assembly every one should select his mate, and the whole company should fall into couples, like the birds on St. Valentine's Day! [emphasis added] It is equally absurd to see a man and his wife eternally trifling and toying together,

Still amorous, and fond, and billing,

Like Philip and Mary on a shilling.


I HAVE often been reduced to a kind of aukward distress on these occasions, not knowing which way to look, or what to say. I consider them as playing a game in which the stander-by is not at all interested, and would therefore recommend it to every third person in these circumstances to take it as a hint that the parties have a mind to be alone, and leave the room without further ceremony.

A FRIEND of mine happened to be engaged in a visit to one of these loving couples. He sat still for some time without interrupting the little endearments that passed between them. Finding them at length quite lost in Nods, Whispers, Ogles, and in short wholly taken up with each other, he rang the bell, and desired the servant to send in my lady's woman. When she came, he led her very gravely to the settee, and began to indulge himself in certain freedoms, which provoked the damsel to complain loudly of his rudeness. The lady flew into a violent passion, and rated him severely for his monstrous behaviour. My friend begged her pardon with great politeness, hoped she was not offended, for that he thought there had been no harm in amusing himself a little while with Mrs. Betty, in the same manner as Her Ladyship and Sir John had been amusing themselves these two hours.

BUT if this conduct is blame able in young people, how very absurd is it in those advanced in years! Who can help laughing when he sees a worn-out Beau and Belle practising at threescore the very follies that are ridiculous at sixteen? I could wish that such a pair of antiquated lovers were delineated by the pencil of a Hogarth. How humourously would he represent two emaciated wrinkled figures, with eyes sunk into their heads, lank cheeks, and toothless gums, affecting to leer, smile, and languish at each other! But this affectation is still more remarkable, when a liquorish old fool is continually fondling a young wife: though perhaps the sight is not so disgusting to a stranger, who may reasonably suppose it to be the over flowings of a father's tenderness for his daughter.

IT sometimes happens that one of them perceives the folly of this behaviour. I have seen a sensible man quite uneasy at the indiscreet marks of kindness shewn by his lady. I know a clergyman in the country, who is often put to the blush by the strange familiarities, which his wife's love induces her to take with him. As she has had but an indifferent education, you would often be at a loss to know whether she is very kind, or very rude. If he dines abroad, she always sees him get on horseback, and before he has got twenty yards from the door, hollows after him, "be at home in time, my dear dog, do."

I have known her almost quarrel with him for not buttoning his coat in the middle of Summer, and she once had the good nature to burn a very valuable collection of Greek Manuscripts, lest the poring over those horrid crooked letters should put her dear Jack's eyes out. Thus does she torment the poor parson with her violent affection for him, and according to the common phrase, kills him with kindness.

I WOULD recommend it to all married people, but especially to the ladies, not to be so sweet upon their dears before company. But I would not be understood to countenance that coldness and indifference, which is so fashionable in the polite world. Nothing is accounted more ungenteel than for a husband and wife to be seen together in public places; and if they should ever accidentally meet, they take no more notice of each other, than if they were absolute strangers. The gentleman may lavish as much gallantry as he pleases on other women, and the lady give encouragement to twenty pretty fellows without censure; but they would either of them blush at being surprized in shewing the least marks of a regard for each other.

BEFORE I conclude I cannot but take notice of those luscious love-scenes, that have so great a share in our modern plays; which are rendered still more fulsom by the officiousness of the player, who takes every opportunity of heightening the expression by kisses and embraces. In a Comedy, nothing is more relished by the audience than a loud smack which echoes through the whole house, and in the most passionate scenes of a Tragedy, the Hero and Heroine are continually flying into each others arms. For my part I am never present at a scene of this kind, which produces a conscious simper from the Boxes, and a hearty chuckle of applause from the Pit and Galleries, but I am ready to exclaim with old Renault

"I like not these huggers."

I am, Sir, Your humble Servant, &c.

"Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête" by William Hogarth, c. 1743. The series depicts an arranged marriage between two young people to appease their fathers.

Although Mr. Town took a dim view of overly romantic public displays of affection and calls for famed satirist William Hogarth (or at least, a satirist like Hogarth) to depict elderly lovers, Hogarth himself was famous for skewering the upper classes, especially when it came to love. In his famous series "Marriage A-la-Mode," we follow a young couple as they have their marriage arranged by their fathers - essentially marrying for money. In this painting, "The Tête à Tête," which is indicated on the original frame as "Shortly after marriage," we see signs of marital decay. The scene takes place the morning after a party - the musician's chair overturned in the foreground and a yawning servant tidying up in the background. The couple seems indifferent to one another. The husband slouches, looking unhappy, and a little dog is retrieving a woman's cap from the husband's pocket, indicating adultery. The wife's self-satisfied air, disarrayed hair, and stretch indicates that she, too, was unfaithful. The broken sword on the floor indicates the husband was in a fight. The couple seem indifferent to one another, and the servant at left holds a large stack of overdue bills.

Thus we have the modern conundrum of the 18th century - to show be in love, but not to show TOO much affection. Some, however, were desperate enough to be in love to turn to popular forms of divination, as we see from another letter to Mr. Town, this one just after Valentine's Day.


NUMBER LVI. THURSDAY, February 20, 1755.

Necte tribus nodis ternos, Amarylli, colores:

Necte, Amarylli, modo, et Veneris, dic, vincula necto.

Ducite ab urbe domum, mea carmina, ducite Daphnin.

Limus ut hic durescit, et haec ut cera liquescit,

Uno eodemque igni; sic nostro Daphnis amore.


THE idle superstitions of the vulgar are no where so conspicuous as in the affairs of love. When a raw girl's brain is once turned with a sweetheart, she converts every trifling accident of her life into a good or bad omen, and makes every thing conspire to strengthen her in so pleasing a delusion. Virgil represents Dido, as soon as she has contracted her fatal passion for Aeneas, as going to the priests to have her fortune told. In like manner the lovesick girl runs to the cunning-man, or crosses the gipsy's hand with her last sixpence, to know when she shall be married, how many children she shall have, and whether she shall be happy with her husband. She also consults the cards, and finds out her lover in the Knave of Hearts. She learns how to interpret dreams, and every night furnishes her with meditations for the next day. If she happens to bring out any thing in conversation which another person was about to say, she comforts herself that she shall be married before them; and if she tumbles as she is running up stairs, imagines she shall go to church with her sweetheart before the week is at an end. But if in the course of their amour she gives the dear man her hair wove in a True-lover's Knot, or breaks a crooked nine pence with him, she thinks herself assured of his inviolable fidelity.

IT would puzzle the most profound antiquary to discover what could give birth to the many strange notions cherished by fond nymphs and swains. The God of Love has more superstitious votaries, and is worshipped with more unaccountable rites than any fabulous deity whatever. Nothing indeed is so whimsical as the imagination of a person in love. The dying shepherd carves the name of his mistress on the trees, while the fond maid knits him a pair of garters with an amorous posey; and both look on what they do as a kind of charm to secure the affection of the other. A lover will rejoice to give his mistress a bracelet or a topknot, and she perhaps will take pleasure in working him a pair of ruffles. These they will regard as the soft bonds of love, but neither would on any account run the risk of cutting love, by giving or receiving such a present as a knife or a pair of scissars. But to wear the picture of the beloved object constantly near the heart is universally accounted a most excellent and never-failing preservative of affection.

SOME few years ago there was publickly advertised, among the other extraordinary medicines whose wonderful qualities are daily related in the last page of our newspapers, a most efficacious love-powder; by which a despairing lover might create affection in the bosom of the most cruel mistress. Lovers have indeed always been fond of enchantment. Shakespeare has represented Othello as accused of winning his Desdemona by "conjuration and mighty magic;" and Theocritus and Virgil have both introduced women into their pastorals using charms and incantations to recover the affection of their sweethearts. In a word, Talismans, Genii, Witches, Fairies, and all the instruments of magic and enchantment were first discovered by lovers, and employed in the business of love.

BUT I never had a thorough insight into all this amorous sorcery till I received the following letter, which was sent me from the country, a day or two after Valentine's Day [emphasis added], and I make no doubt but all true lovers most religiously performed the previous rites mentioned by my correspondent.

To Mr. TOWN.

Feb. 17, 1755.


YOU must know I am in love with a very clever man, a Londoner; and as I want to know whether it is my fortune to have him, I have tried all the tricks I can hear of for that purpose. I have seen him several times in Coffee-grounds with a sword by his side; and he was once at the bottom of a Tea-cup in a coach and six with two footmen behind it. I got up last May morning, and went into the fields to hear the cuckow; and when I pulled off my left shoe, I found an hair in it exactly the same colour with his. But I shall never forget what I did last Midsummer Eve. I and my two sisters tried the Dumb Cake together: you must know, two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put it under each of their pillows, (but you must not speak a word all the time) and then you will dream of the man you are to have. This we did; and to be sure I did nothing all night, but dream of Mr. Blossom. The same night, exactly at twelve o'clock, I sowed Hempseed in our back yard, and said to myself, "Hempseed I sow, Hempseed I hoe, and he that is my true-love, come after me and mow."

Will you believe me? I looked back, and saw him behind me, as plain as eyes could see him. After that, I took a clean shift, and turned it, and hung upon the back of a chair; and very likely my sweetheart would have come and turned it right again, (for I heard his step) but I was frightened, and could not help speaking, which broke the charm. I likewise stuck up two Midsummer Men, one for myself, and one for him. Now if his had died away, we should never have come together: but I assure you he blowed and turned to me. Our maid Betty tells me, that if I go backwards without speaking a word into the garden upon Midsummer Eve, and gather a Rose, and keep it in a clean sheet of paper, without looking at it, till Christmas day, it will be as fresh as in June; and if I then stick it in my bosom, he that is to be my husband will come and take it out. If I am not married before the time comes about again, I will certainly do it; and only mind if Mr. Blossom is not the man.

I HAVE tried a great many other fancies, and they have all turned out right. Whenever I go to lye in a strange bed, I always tye my garter nine times round the bed-post, and knit nine knots in it, and say to myself, This knot I knit, this knot I tye, To see my love as he goes by, In his apparel and array, As he walks in every day. I did so last holidays at my uncle's; and to be sure I saw Mr. Blossom draw my curtains and tuck up the cloaths at my bed's feet. Cousin Debby was married a little while ago, and she sent me a piece of Bride-Cake to put under my pillow; and I had the sweetest dream—I thought we were going to be married together. I have, many is the time, taken great pains to pare an Apple Whole, and afterwards flung the Peel over my head; and it always falls in the shape of the first letter of his Sirname or Christian name. I am sure Mr. Blossom loves me, because I stuck two of the Kernels upon my forehead, while I thought upon him and the lubberly squire my pappa wants me to have: Mr. Blossom's Kernel stuck on, but the other dropt off directly.

LAST Friday, Mr. TOWN, was Valentine's Day [emphasis added]; and I'll tell you what I did the night before. I got five bay-leaves, and pinned four of them to the four corners of my pillow, and the fifth to the middle; and then if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said we should be married before the year was out. But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it up with salt; and when I went to bed, eat it shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it: and this was to have the same effect with the bay-leaves. We also wrote our lovers names upon bits of paper, and rolled them up in clay, and put them into water; and the first that rose up, was to be our Valentine. Would you think it? Mr. Blossom was my man: and I lay a-bed and shut my eyes all the morning, till he came to our house; for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.

DEAR Mr. TOWN, if you know any other ways to try our fortune by, do put them in your paper. My Mamma laughs at us, and says there is nothing in them; but I am sure there is, for several Misses at our boarding school have tried them, and they have all happened true: and I am sure my own sister Hetty, who died just before Christmas, stood in the Church Porch last Midsummer Eve to see all that were to die that year in our parish; and she saw her own apparition.

Your humble servant ARABELLA WHIMSEY.

Oval shaped Rococo painting of a blushing cupid standing in a pastoral scene
"Love the Sentinel" by Jean Honoré Fragonard, 1773/1776. National Gallery of Art.

Did Americans also celebrate Valentine’s Day? Romantic, filial, and platonic love were all more freely expressed in the 18th century than they were in centuries to come. In an era where communication was limited to either face-to-face or written, the letter became of all-consuming importance. People of leisure or high status wrote several, sometimes dozens of letters every day.

The introduction of the Rococo style (1740-1770) in art, fashion, and elsewhere also brought two main motifs – the cupid and the shepherdess. The cupid became the symbol of love, and the shepherdess, often courted by a shepherd, the symbol of both pure, innocent young love as well as sometimes references to bawdier pastoral activities. Highly stylized shepherdess gowns became popular for both portraiture and costume parties. Both cupids and shepherdesses are featured on the Rococo style papier-mâché ceiling here at Philipse Manor Hall.

It was this emphasis on romance that later critics of the Rococo would deem overblown, insipid, and sentimental – critiques Mr. Town would likely agree with. The Rococo style also became symbolic of the excesses of the French aristocracy, crystalized in the tragic figure of Marie Antoinette, who often liked to dress in simpler styles that evoked shepherdesses. As the clean lines of the Neoclassical and Federal styles took over, along with democracy and revolution, the excessive romance of prior decades would take on a more serious tone. But love letters? Those never went out of style.

Rococo painting of two white women - one in blue silk, the other in pink striped shepherdess's outfit, tying a love letter to the neck of a white dove, surrounded by pastoral scene with sheep and a dog
"The Love Letter" by François Boucher, 1750. National Gallery of Art. Here we see two women, the one in pink clearly a shepherdess, tying a love letter to the neck of a white pigeon or dove.

Love letters became increasingly popular, especially in association with Valentine's Day. Valentine writers - pamphlets of bits of poetry, verse, and sentiment designed to be copied by would-be romancers - began to be printed in the 1790s. By the early 1800s, books like "The Temple of Love: A New Valentine Writer" and "Park's Bower of Cupid and General Valentine Writer" and even "The Satirical Valentine Writer" were all in popular publication, a trend that continued to the 1850s. As printing presses became increasingly prevalent and colored printing more common, handwritten letters and hand-painted cards were superseded by the printed Valentine. And the rest is history.

Additional Reading:

"Love Letters in the 18th Century"

"Passion is the Gale" 

"'My Dear Nell': The Letters of John Moultrie"

"The Heart of the Matter: A History of Valentine Cards" From the Collections of The Strong National Museum of Play

"Unpacking a Box of Love" historic valentines from the collections of the Met