Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
Column

Valentine's Day, so lucrative for businesses, has a naughty history

I tend not to quote from other publications, but the New York Daily Tribune really hit the mark with this appeal for sanity:

“There was a time when Valentine’s Day meant something,” it observed. “Then it was a business of real lovers and there was sweetness under its delicate shy disguise.”

But rampant commercialism has changed everything. The paper declared its opposition to “this modern degeneracy, this miscellaneous and business fashion.”

That was written in February 1847.

It’s easy to take potshots at the exploitation of festive occasions by profit-seeking businesses. But the monetization of Valentine’s Day, our national celebration of romance, stands out — not least because what is commonly perceived as a celebration of innocent affection has its historical roots in considerably naughtier behavior.

“The notion of a mid-February fertility festival stretches back to antiquity,” said Noel Lenski, a professor of classics and history at Yale University. “What better time to think positive thoughts about human passion than the doldrums of winter?

“The Romans did it with wine, sex and a bit of violence,” he observed. “Modern Americans do it with a lot of money. Seems reflexive of the cultural differences between then and now.”

Modern Americans will spend $18.2 billion expressing their ardor by the end of Tuesday, or an average $136.57 per lover, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s down a bit from last year, when rising consumer optimism caused Valentine’s Day spending to hit a record $19.7 billion.

“This is one day of the year when millions find a way to show their loved ones they care regardless of their budget,” said federation President Matthew Shay.

Many historians agree that Valentine’s Day can be traced back to ancient Rome when, in the middle of February, the toga crowd celebrated Lupercalia. This involved men getting naked, sacrificing goats and then using strips from the skins to chase and whip nearby women, thereby improving the women’s fertility.

Those Romans. They put the Rome in romance.

And who was St. Valentine? It’s likely he was one of a couple of guys named Valentine executed by Emperor Claudius II in the 3rd century A.D., each on Feb. 14, according to legend.

Not much is known about these fellows, but their stories have been embellished over the centuries to suggest they were victims of love or incurable romantics. In one telling, one of the Valentines sent a note to a lady friend prior to getting his head chopped off and signed it, “From your Valentine.”

“We call this the invention of tradition,” said David Bertaina, a history professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. “We don’t actually know anything about these Valentines other than their name.”

For that reason, the Catholic Church stopped venerating St. Valentine in 1969, although he remains an officially recognized saint.

It took hundreds of years after the wild times of Lupercalia for Valentine’s Day to catch on among European elites as a nifty opportunity to demonstrate one’s skill at love poems and letters.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century poem “The Parliament of Fowls” helped set the date. It’s about birds declaring their love for one another on Feb. 14. Ophelia makes passing mention of Valentine’s Day in “Hamlet.”

By the 18th century, British aristocrats with lots of time on their hands spent hours making elaborate Valentines decorated with lace, satin, ribbons and all manner of romantic prose and imagery.

You know the old business adage of finding a need and filling it? That’s what happened next.

In the 1840s, a Massachusetts entrepreneur named Esther A. Howland recognized an opportunity to create and sell mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards for people who didn’t have the time or inclination to glue lace and ribbons to highly personal love letters.

Her business eventually grossed $100,000 a year, which, by 19th century standards, was a hefty chunk of change.

“She was the Mark Zuckerberg of her time,” said Katherine Aiken, a history professor at the University of Idaho. “She came up with something that no one else had anticipated.”

Enter Hallmark. The greeting card company produced its first Valentine in 1913 and began mass-producing them several years later. A multibillion-dollar industry was born.

This year, the National Retail Federation says, U.S. consumers marked Valentine’s Day by spending an estimated $4.3 billion on jewelry, $3.8 billion on an evening out, $2 billion on flowers, $1.9 billion on clothing, $1.7 billion on candy, $1.4 billion on gift cards and gift certificates and $1 billion on cards.

“It’s not so much that Hallmark and jewelry stores created all this commercialization,” said James Alvarez Mourey, an assistant professor of marketing at DePaul University. “They’re marketing an established cultural phenomenon.”

The gift-giving trend for Valentine’s Day won’t go away, he said, but it probably will evolve as younger people increasingly express a preference for “experiences” — getaways, nights out, unexpected adventures — over material goodies such as flowers or earrings.

Mourey advised would-be Romeos to try something their Juliet won’t see coming. “Women expect flowers,” he observed. “That takes the surprise element away.”

Point taken.

Honey, if you’re reading this, fire up the stove. We’re sacrificing a goat tonight.

To read the article in Spanish, click

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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