As early as the 1250s, a French manuscript titled “Roman de la Poire” (Romance of the Pear), depicted a man offering his heart (which looked somewhat like a pinecone) to his beloved. Heart-like shapes cropped up frequently in medieval art, and during the Renaissance, the symbol’s popularity grew as it was used to depict the sacred heart of Jesus. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the familiar heart shape had cemented its status as a motif of love and romance.
In Roman mythology, Cupid was the god of erotic love, attraction and affection. His Greek counterpart, Eros, was said to play with the emotions of gods and mortals alike — carrying golden arrows to arouse desire and leaden arrows to inspire aversion. Eros was depicted as a handsome man, but by the time Cupid started appearing on Victorians’ Valentine cards, he’d morphed into a playful, mischievous child.
We also have ancient mythology to thank for associating red roses with romance and devotion. Consider that “rose” is an anagram of Eros, the aforementioned Greek god of love. As one story goes, Eros’s mother, the goddess Aphrodite, ran through a thorn bush to warn her lover, Adonis, about a murder plot against him. The thorns cut her ankles, and roses were said to grow from the mingling of blood and tears when she found she was too late.
The Romans used the flowers for confetti, medicine and perfume, and rose crowns topped the heads of newly married couples.
Later, Shakespeare would show his fondness for the flower by mentioning it more than 70 times in his works. In the Victorian era, when lovers relied on flowers to express feelings they couldn’t convey verbally, red roses were a simple way to say, “I love you.”
While imprisoned in the Tower of London, Charles, Duke of Orleans, penned a love note to his wife, Bonnie — referring to her as “my very gentle Valentine.” History records this as the first-known Valentine’s letter.
Valentine’s Day gained popularity in the 1700s, with notes and flowers being exchanged. In 1913, Hallmark — then known as the Hall Brothers — released the first commercially produced Valentine’s Card.