What is love? Scientists explain it in terms of the body’s release of adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin; cynics refute its existence by citing ancient philosophy. The Greeks had six words to describe it, whereas Merriam Webster offers a simple definition. More recently, a Hallmark card asserted that love is when you find “the sprinkled donut in a sea of glazed.”
Whatever it may be, the complexity of “love” opens the arena for many interpretations and ways of expression. It is an intangible feeling that we seek to materialize through tangible exchanges, much like how our desire to consume is expressed via the transaction of paper money.
Therefore, “punny” cards depicting talking donuts, a cherub with a quiver of arrows and centuries of heart-shaped anything are the expected form of currency when transacting love come Feb. 14 — a currency made of paper, measured in chocolate and scented like a rose.
It has been over a millennium since Feb. 14 was formally recognized for a martyred Catholic priest and an estimated 545 years since the earliest surviving valentine was sent to its lovestruck recipient.
Love — whatever it means — has been expressed since the dawn of time, with paper love notes serving as a common source. Love is a feeling, a drive; a motivator, a risk. Love is everything that you can feel yet everything you can’t touch. Hence, there is one designated day each year that gives us the chance to materialize said feeling, where valentines attempt to express their “eros” using Cupid as their guide. Under his direction, the currency of love has maintained its medium of paper, creased with a crisp centerfold, patterned with a red filigree design and sealed with a kiss.
Valentine’s Day became popular in the U.S. during the 1840s, when increased paper production and the proliferation of the printing press allowed for pre-printed notes featuring iconic love birds, bright red hearts and our favorite “god of love.” Specifically, Esther Howland is accredited with making Valentine’s Day a business after transforming her stationary art into a monopolistic essential for American lovers. Put simply: Love went commercial.
Howland sold many of her creations for the high price of 75 cents (the equivalent of $100 today), embossing each note with her signature “H.” Howland’s work was an artistic, tangible symbol of love and an early example of the importance of branding in shaping social and cultural trends.
Early cards often featured short greetings and poems that juxtaposed playful flirtation with biting humor. Luxury cards, like Howland’s, featured wafered paper pressed to mimic lace, overlaid with precious gold foil and colored paper cutouts. They were intricate pieces of art, art that required much creative thought and intention — and all of an average American’s daily salary.
For the superfluous valentine, though, handmade cards highlighted the sentimentality of the sender, saving pennies while creating a spark. To some, a man who can write his own poem was more wooing than one who can simply open his wallet.
To explore the historic commodification of love and its place in popular culture, I spoke with Dr. Elizabeth White Nelson, University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor and cultural historian of 19th century America. Her research supports that romantic relationships of the 19th century were characterized by a focus on economics — valentines serving as a “broker.” The trading of cards was a testament of wealth and devotion, recording fraught issues of love and marriage on paper.
And while the circulation of cards may have been born out of pure, heart-beating intentions by entrepreneurs like Howland, they soon became a symbol of status. After all, middle-class women of the 19th and 20th centuries had to consider the relationship between romantic love and the economic reality; the alternative of marriage being work in factories or mills. The holiday was a way to test the viability of said reality, using heart-shaped materialism as a measurement of future stability. The currency of love was a currency for survival, a notion that may have stuck.
Now, Valentine’s Day marks the main day of the year in which singles and couples alike subject themselves to both cupid’s arrow and the card aisle, using materialism to mimic stability in both a financial and emotional lens. One hundred and forty-five million cards travel from hand to hand every year and a mere $21.8 billion dollars is projected to be spent on gifts this Feb. 14. Red roses are the staple flower in every bouquet order, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate are an ancient aphrodisiac that can’t stay on the shelves — each gift accompanied with a love note.
Talking avocados, cartoon cats and sexual innuendos make up many card designs nowadays, supplementing long-held romantic motifs with evolving visual fads. Yet to Dr. White Nelson, while the material symbols of love may have lost some sophistication, “we are still struggling with love in the same way.”
The evolution of card exchange is an ever-changing quest for materializing love, a never-ending haste to commodify a feeling. Hence, shifts in romantic, socio-cultural trends caused by reduced disposable income levels and the deconstruction of heteronormativity reveal that the true underpinnings of Valentine’s Day and the act of giving cards may have never been about love in the first place. Instead, it is about defining comfort within a relationship through an element of tangible risk; a risk of love and a relationship hidden behind the front of a mischievous cupid or talking donut. A risk not needed solely between a man and a woman or under a sizeable budget.
This risk is partly what inspired Dr. White Nelson’s research: “you’ll find someone who has a charming and lovely valentine story, but most Valentine’s stories are of heartbreak and fear and concern and disdain for the holiday as insincere.” This is likely because “we feel both drawn to the idea that goods can speak for us and uncomfortable with the idea that we don’t control them.”
Cards can therefore be viewed as an invitation to romantic love, an invitation that has the opportunity to be declined or embraced. While cards may not in essence be an all-encompassing embodiment of love, they are in fact a currency of it. A currency that is difficult to standardize — something that has been grappled with for centuries.
Ann Arbor, at one point rated one of the country’s most romantic cities, has hosted countless card exchanges and budding relationships, spreading love throughout campus and within the lecture halls.
Archived within the Bentley Historical Library are scrapbooks featuring students’ paper love, dating from the early 1900s onward. Many feature rosy-cheeked cupid, others: cartoon silverware.
Yet, cards were not always the premier mode of Valentine’s gift-giving on campus. In fact, the 1939 Valentine’s Day edition of The Michigan Daily touted love notes as a “stale” form of “commercialized sentimentality,” suggesting instead a $2 horse-drawn tour around Washtenaw county. The 1951 edition cited “decreasing money and decreasing chivalry” as the cause of lessened card exchanges, two years later stating that “people with enemies are more likely to receive [valentines] than people with friends.”
Pre-made cards with lackluster poems were no longer causing a spark. If not a card, what is the way to our hearts?
The 1987 edition advertised a heart-shaped pizza from the Brown Jug and a couples getaway to the Bahamas with the ingenious tagline “A day in the library? Or a day in paradise?” By 2022 standards, Kay Jewelers claims a lab-created pink opal heart ring is the perfect gift, presented with a card depicting hugging blocks of cheese with the caption “Will you brie my valentine?”
Such evolution in gift-giving, ranging from spiteful valentines to romantic cheese, exposes the varying, and somewhat comical, generational attempts in pinpointing the materialization of love — something seen within our own city. There is no return to the “good old days” where love spread with sincerity, unaffected by capitalism or social demands; history provides corroboration. Despite subtle changes in gift-giving or card circulation, what remains constant is the tangible risks of expressing love coupled with the reliance on shops and card aisles to commercialize sentimentality. As a result, business executives and card designers are (and have always been) sticking their noses in our romantic business. Gross!
With that, it makes sense why eye rolls and heavy sighs emerge at the mention of Valentine’s Day or the mere sight of the bright pink aisles. It is a polarizing day, one with a materialistic obligation for those in love and a painful reminder of loneliness for those who are not. It is an expectation to love and be loved despite there not being enough roses to go around, or cards to be exchanged. Many of us chase the feeling of love, thinking that it can be bought. Cards and other commodities are meant to speak to what we may be uncomfortable to outright say, entrusting one of the most powerful feelings to one of the most disposable mediums.
Therefore, “there is a tension about whether or not we can entrust something as scary and serious as love to something made out of paper,” Dr. White Nelson said. There is a great danger to putting the “…circulation of [cards], this commodity, for something that’s so much bigger than a commodity.”
So should love, with all of its complexities, be commodified?
To Engineering sophomore Diego Suazo, “It’s like we do to really try to quantify love, especially monetarily, but I don’t think you can really put a metric to it.” That’s why his plans this holiday include avoiding “shallow” posts on social media and cards and chocolates he feels are “better for beginning relationships.”
To Suazo, love can be as simple as being attentive.
“We listen to people, but we don’t really hear them or what they’re saying. I think love is just paying attention,” Suazo said.
So this Valentine’s Day, instead of just opening your wallet: open your ears as well as your heart. Strive for sincerity when writing a note. Celebrate with those you love, no matter who they are, in the ways they feel most appreciated — even if this means leaving behind the clichéd cards and chalk-tasting chocolate.
It can be concluded that love is in fact the body’s release of adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. Love is indescribable, yet perfectly explained. Love is when you find “the sprinkled donut in a sea of glazed.” Love is whatever you want it to be in whatever ways you choose to express it — unbounded by a set currency.
Statement Deputy Editor Julia Verklan Maloney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.