Expert Commentary

Rituals, consumerism and more: 5 studies to bolster your Valentine’s Day coverage

Looking for fresh takes for your Valentine's Day coverage? Check out these 5 studies we've curated and summarized, on rituals, consumerism and senior dating and more.

(Tyler Nix / Unsplash)

Want some fresh takes for your Valentine’s Day coverage? Open your heart to the five studies we’ve summarized below. They look at:

  • The origins of Valentine’s Day rituals.
  • Services that write card inscriptions.
  • Consumerism on Valentine’s Day.
  • How the annual day of romance affects birth timing.
  • Older Americans’ dating preferences.

Love, Custom & Consumption: Valentine’s Day in England c. 1660–1830
Sally Holloway. Cultural and Social History, August 2019.

Valentine’s Day is the second most popular holiday for greeting cards in the U.S. Lovebirds, friends and family buy 145 million cards for their valentines, outpacing all other single holidays for card sales besides Christmas, according to data from the Greeting Card Association, a trade group.

Where did the tradition of exchanging cards on Valentine’s Day come from? One source dates to 17th century England, when friends and family would gather and draw their valentine’s name at random.

“This custom remained common until around the mid-eighteenth century: participants wrote their names upon pieces of paper, which were rolled up and put into a hat or apron,” writes Holloway, a research fellow at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, England.

People would then write poems with their valentine’s name in rhyme. Here’s one example, from the paper, of a poem crafted for a Valentine’s Day lottery from 1723:

Since on this day Each Bird doth chuse his Mate

Soe I make Choice of you my Charming Kate

Till Easter Next my valentine to be

And Ever after that adored by me

“The poems were worn around men’s hatbands for the ensuing days, and pinned to women’s breasts,” Holloway writes. “Couples often danced together, and the women were presented with love tokens such as garters, gloves, handkerchiefs, money, portrait miniatures and silk stockings.”

By the late 18th century, it was more common to give cards to a valentine of choice. Cards could be bought or were homemade. Holloway describes one card from Valentine’s Day 1783:

“In the centre stand a shepherd and shepherdess in a wooded landscape, encircled by a flaming yellow sun, from which four cut-paper trees grow.”

A handwritten poem on the back of the card refers to the practice — by then derided by upper-class men and women — of drawing from a Valentine’s Day lottery:

The lots were cast and you I knew

and fortune said it must be you

and if you take it in good Part

I shall be glad with all my heart.

Also by late 18th century, “individuals could purchase valentine writers for sixpence, a new genre collating short stories, songs, country dances, poems, riddles and dialogues about love and marriage to entertain and amuse,” according to Holloway.

Like Cupid’s arrow hitting its mark, the next paper is on just that topic.

When You Care Enough to Pay Someone to Send the Very Best: The Outsourcing of Greeting Card Inscriptions
Craig D. Lair. Sociological Inquiry, December 2016.

If writer’s block or lack of poetic soul is keeping you from writing the perfect inscription for your crush’s Valentine’s card, modern day Cyrano de Bergeracs are out there to help. Lair, an associate professor of sociology at Gettysburg College, looks through a sociological lens to get at what it means to give and receive cards inscribed by strangers.

He writes that “the source of greeting cards’ symbolic value is not vested in its printed words. Rather, it comes from practices that personalize a card and the meaning it has.” These practices include the time and money it takes to buy a card and thought behind the words the giver writes.

The author looked at how 29 card inscription services operate, most of them headquartered in the U.S. Some services transcribe their clients’ messages verbatim, providing a handwritten touch but not an original message. Others create messages based on information the client provides, or provide pre-written inscriptions.

“That outsourced inscriptions are misrepresented as ones that are not suggests that providers and senders do not believe that recipients value the former in the same way as the latter,” Laird concludes. “Whether this is true or not, the kind of misrepresentation evidenced in outsourced inscriptions is significant because, if effective, it denies recipients opportunity to negotiate the meaning that such inscriptions will have.”

Gifts: Intertwining market and moral economies and the rise of store bought gifts
Michelle Weinberger. Consumption Markets & Culture, September 2016.

Consumerism got you down this Valentine’s Day? Turns out consumerism is the heart of the modern holiday.

The roots of Valentine’s Day come from a yearly celebration of Christian martyrs beheaded on Feb. 14. The day became associated with romance thanks to the writings of 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Come the 1840s, Valentine’s Day emerged as the first “commercially oriented gift holiday,” in the U.S., writes Weinberger, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University.

Americans haven’t looked back since.

“St. Valentine’s Day, with its vague religious origins and romantic literary associations, made an easy target for secularization during a time when Americans yearned for a secular national holiday that was celebrated by all, as opposed to fragmented, ethnically grounded rituals,” Weinberger writes. “This context provided the social and cultural conditions for the valentine to emerge.”

Toward the end of the 1840s, the company T.W. Strong was the dominant valentine producer in America, with sales of cut-paper and lace cards earning the company upward of $75,000 yearly. Stores used elaborate romantic window displays and borrowed from folk histories of card-giving rituals to drum up sales, and they encouraged card giving beyond romantic partners, to family and friends. Social critics said mass production of Valentine’s Day cards cheapened their sentimental value.

“Nonetheless, despite concerns, a valentine remained an imperative tie sign for romantic relationships, as well as an increasingly important one between friends and peers,” Weinberger writes. “The meanings and social norms surrounding gift giving along with evolving social conditions fueled the success of the valentine in the marketplace and further legitimized the acquisition of gifts from retailers.”

Influence of Valentine’s Day and Halloween on Birth Timing
Becca R. Levy, Pil H. Chung and Martin D. Slade. Social Science & Medicine, October 2011.

In this study, researchers looked at whether pregnant women were more or less likely to give birth on a “positive” holiday, a “negative” holiday or a day that isn’t a holiday. They examined 3.4 million births from 1996 to 2006 that took place in the U.S. on or close to Valentine’s Day, which the researchers note is associated with love and flowers, and Halloween, associated with death and witches.

Among the main takeaways: A larger number of women gave birth spontaneously and via cesarean section on Valentine’s Day compared with any other day during the week before and the week after the holiday. On average, there were 234 more spontaneous births, 353 more cesarean births and 58 more induced births each year on Valentine’s Day than on other days within that 15-day window.

The research team, from Yale University’s School of Public Health, found the opposite was true for Halloween. Pregnant women were much less likely to give birth — especially if they had a choice — on Halloween. Women were 5.3% less likely to have their babies spontaneously on Halloween than during the week before or afterward. They were 16.9% less likely to deliver via cesarean section on Halloween and 18.7% less likely to have an induced delivery.

The researchers write that it appears pregnant women can expedite or delay birth within a limited timeframe in response to “cultural representations.” They explain that “a previously unnoticed psychophysiological mechanism may explain this pattern: the positive connotations of Valentine’s Day may increase a pregnant woman’s will to initiate birth and the negative connotations of Halloween may precipitate her will to resist giving birth; both tendencies may then influence the hormonal mechanism that controls birth timing.”

What Do Older Adults Seek in Their Potential Romantic Partners? Evidence from Online Personal Ads
William D. McIntosh, Lawrence Locker Jr., Katherine Briley, Rebecca Ryan and Alison J. Scott. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, January 2011.

There are many more older women than older men in the U.S. Does that mean heterosexual women relax their dating standards after age 65 to find romance? For the women in this study, the answer is no. In fact, the authors found that older women actually were more selective than the younger women they studied. Unlike younger women, older women also tended to shift their romantic preference toward younger men.

A group of researchers from Georgia Southern University examined a random sample of 200 dating profiles posted to the popular dating site The researchers compared the profiles of older daters — men and women aged 65 and older — and younger daters — men and women between the ages of 25 and 35.

What they learned: “Older daters were more particular than younger daters about the height, race, and religion, and older women (but not men) were more selective than younger women when it came to a prospective mate’s income.”

The authors point out some limitations. For example, they based their analysis on people’s stated preferences for prospective dates, not their dating behavior. Prior research, the authors note, has found people lie in their dating profiles.

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