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Valentine’s Day advice from the 19th century

February 14, 2012

I’ve posted before about the excellent resource that is the “Chronicling America” project of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d look through some 19th century newspapers to see what, if anything, the daily miracles were advising their readers about the 14th of February.

You’ll often hear that Valentine’s Day is a fake holiday made up to sell cards and flowers. The idea of celebrating love (and lust) around this time of year actually has a deep history.

As a 19th century guy – meaning I’m interested in that time period as a scholar, not that I’m super-old – I was curious how the day was marked over a century ago. What I found was pretty interesting. There was quite a bit of news coverage of the day, and below the break, I’ll showcase one example that I found. I think you’ll see that there’s really nothing new about the commercialization of this tradition that’s been around for millennia.

The paper I’ll discuss is the Fort Worth (Texas) Daily Gazette, of 14 February 1889. You can view a scalable scan of the page in question. We’re interested in the second column from the left.

Under the heading “Cupid’s Mail Bag,” the author begins with what he or she considers a well-known claim of the time:

There seems to be a popular opinion that the valentine custom is dying out and that the prosaic world is demanding something a little more substantial in the way of love tokens than a bit of painted pasteboard. Each year this opinion prevails and according to the length of time that has elapsed since its first appearance the custom should by this time have entirely disappeared.

Not so, says the correspondent, who notes that even “the encroaches of the Easter and Christmas cards” cannot still the popularity of cards on Valentine’s Day. That’s an interesting claim, implying that sending cards for Easter and Christmas is relatively new, while Valentine’s cards are a more well-established tradition.

The article goes on to list some of the more popular and novel cards of the time. For instance, a top choice seems to have been that well-known symbol of love, the baby owl:

Little downy owllets made of a combination of cotton and imagination perch themselves in all possible positions and places. Some are driving a pair of butterflies over a celluloid field that curls up on one end to keep the tiny things from dashing over the edge; others blink their unwinking eyes from the top of a tree of about the same height as themselves; others are perched under umbrellas. The whole line of owlishness is very pretty and unique.

I love the writing here, especially the reference to their composition: “a combination of cotton and imagination.” Is it just me, or is this a veiled judgment to the quality of the owl cards? Regardless, I’d love to see an example of one of those.

For the more well-heeled wooer, the article suggests an upgrade to a booklet, which are “crowding out the cards” as they are “much more pretty and vastly more popular.”

This particular booklet consists of from five to fifteen leaves each one bearing a flower or twig or leaf from the flora of the Rocky mountains neatly mounted. The specimens are actual growths and are carefully selected with reference to the harmony of tints in each volume. The whole is bound in heavy paper covers tied with pretty ribbons.

While a nice owl card would run you a dollar a box (presumably you could send a card to several ladies or gents), a … twig book? … would run as high as 5 bucks.

Of course, nothing beats the traditional, which is described as a “tinsel valentine” made of paper that opens when unfolded. The article reports “great demand” for the old-fashioned style, in part, the reporter speculates, because their prices have fallen from 2 dollars to 50 cents. Regardless, though, “the owls and the  floral specimens … are going to press the spiralspring styles pretty hard this year.”

One thing to be avoided, though, is the homemade Valentine card. The reporter warns against this dodge in the most severe terms:

Homemade valentines will abound, the product of the amateur artist, and the postman will groan and cast doubtful gibes at cupid.

Aside from the delights of the prose and the gift suggestions that seem odd to a modern eye, this look back in time serves a lesson, I think. You can see, even more than a century ago, a focus on commercialism. We often think this is of much more recent vintage. Not even slightly.

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