A Valentine message for labour

Posted on February 16, 2016


Perhaps it was appropriate that Sunday was Valentine’s Day. It provided some respite from political shenanigans of the past week and the parlous state of the real economy. And despite the recent interest rate hike and dire warnings about soaring household debt, many retailers and restaurateurs will this week be celebrating as they tally their weekend takings.

In many countries around the world, much the same will apply since shop tills, especially in confectionaries and florists, produced a veritable cacophony of rings and bleeps as they tally sometimes record sales. The United States, where what has been called the commercialisation of Cupid had its origins, will lead the way in terms of messages and gifts delivered and romantic dinners consumed.

But this year also saw a further decline in the very element that started the modern Valentine’s Day celebration: the card. Millions of these flitted electronically from computer to computer. And not many people involved will have bothered to think about the implications of this any more than they may know about the origins and history of the day.

But fewer physical cards means less work for printers and for those who supply the materials for such production. There is also less work for postal sorters and deliverers. In the greater scheme of things, this is minor, but it is a reflection of how the march of progress affects jobs.

A slightly more dramatic example came quite soon after the first Valentine cards were mass produced by the daughter of a printer and stationery shop owner in the town of Worcester in the US. In 1847, Ester Howland, copying the ornate handmade cards produced in England, began producing cards using an assembly line approach, employing local women.

But it was only a matter of time before the cutting, pasting and folding needed was done by machine. However, Worcester developed into a centre for textile and shoe manufacture that provided new jobs until these too succumbed to cheaper, faster imports.

At the time Ester Howland and her female assembly line were producing cards, these had to be posted. This required envelopes that were also then largely handmade. But a local doctor, perhaps inspired by the success of Ester Howland’s Valentine cards, then invented an envelope producing machine.

Dr Russell Hawes went on to develop a self-feeding device that further reduced the number of workers required. Instead of the hundreds of envelopes one worker could produce in a day, the machine produced more than 10 000.

At the same time, in Europe, there was a similar surge of labour-saving inventiveness. This led radicals such as Karl Marx and Frederich Engels to postulate that this would lead to “an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production”. It did. And led to a series of booms and slumps culminating in the massive extension of credit that played the major role in the current and ongoing crisis.

So the history of Valentine Day cards provides a glimpse into how technological advances resulted in job shedding, but in days when there were still other jobs to go to. However, it does also seem ironic that this day that celebrates amorous love had its origins in the encouragement of greater chastity.

The idea of celebrating the Feast of St Valentine was introduced by Pope Gelasius 1 about 1 700 years ago. In his day, in newly Christianised Rome, many of the old pagan festivals were still celebrated — and in the old ways. This meant that, on February 15, near naked young men would cavort about the streets of Rome and be sought out by eligible young women.

This was in honour of Lupercus, a borrowed deity from Greece where Lupercus was known as Pan, a pipe-playing man-goat with a voracious sexual appetite. This did not suit the religious sensibilities or the morality of the then newly founded church. So Galasius introduced the Feast of St Valentine to celebrate the church and love within, or with the aim of, monogamous marriage.

Over the centuries, this attitude changed gradually and the bleeding heart of the church with an angel standing over it, became a simple heart, a symbol of love, with Cupid, complete with bow and arrow, taking the part of the angel. And today, Valentine the saint is also no more. He was officially removed in 1969 when researchers of the Roman Catholic Church decided that there was insufficient evidence that such a person every existed.