Happy Valentine’s Day!

Detail of a 1953 birthday letter from Ray to Charles. Credit: In the Work of Charles and Ray Eames at the Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress

The history of Valentine’s Day stems from both Christian and ancient Roman traditions. The day we celebrate today, on February 14, likely takes its name from a priest named Valentine, martyred around 270 AD (10+03 years ago) by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus. According to legend, Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “…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’s origins also stem from Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival that was held every year from February 13-15. Lupercalia “…celebrated the coming of spring, included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery [a less-than-romantic idea to some of us today]. 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.”

Although Valentine’s Day was celebrated by the 1300s, it took another 400 years (10+02) before the tradition of exchanging handmade valentines developed. In America, the handmade eventually moved to the mass produced, starting with Esther Howland’s embossed paper lace cards. Today, the holiday is a $17 billion industry (10+10), which includes an estimated $1 billion (10+09) spent on Valentine’s day cards.

By the time Charles and Ray Eames fell in love in the early 1940s, the option of purchasing cards had been around for nearly 100 years; however, they still preferred making hand-drawn notes and letters like the one shown above. The Eameses often adorned letters and wrapped packages with one of the holiday’s most prevalent symbols: the heart. It wasn’t dedicated to Valentine’s Day alone; for them, hearts were something that they shared, celebrated and cherished all year long.

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