The Victorian Era was a time of Romanticism: flowery language, love letters as a part of courtship; the protection of sweethearts, wives, and mothers and sheltering beloved females from the coarser realities of the world. Courtship involved the wooing of a special woman often through poetry, written expressions of tender feelings, and just the right turn of phrase in conversation.
In America’s Victorian Era, observing Valentine’s Day was an important and significant holiday. Newspaper accounts throughout the decades often recall the ancient Roman history of Valentine’s Day, including the origin of the name, customs, and more. The following article is representative of many present throughout the era’s papers, citing English and Scottish historical traditions of pairing (first both married and unmarried, then in the last few centuries, unmarried only) males and females:
LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY
“During the late nineteenth century, the occasion of St. Valentine’s Day was a chance for novelty in entertaining. Valentine’s Day party ideas such as luncheons, teas, socials and fancy dress functions of all sorts were easily and artistically arranged with flowers, hearts, darts and cupids. The success of these pleasant social affairs often depended on the theme of the party.” [Source]
“A token of love in the 19th century was a paper hand, which was a symbol of courtship. Tiny paper gloves were also popular. Real gloves had long been a favorite valentine gift, especially in the British Isles were it became a true love token. With them went verses like this:
If that from Glove, you take the letter G
Then Glove is Love and that I send to thee.
Sometimes the gloves was a way of proposing. If the girl accepted, she wore them to church the following Easter.” [Source]
VALENTINE’S DAY GIFTS
When and where available, and when financial circumstances made such gifts (and frivolities) possible, newspapers of the day indicate sweethearts (particularly ladies… but gentlemen, too) expected Valentine’s Day gifts from the fellow courting them (or their best gal).
According to the papers, the list of suitable and appropriate Valentine’s Day gifts include:
- Decorative glove boxes with inscribed/imprinted love sentiments
- Handkerchiefs (decorative)
- Decorated hankie boxes with inscribed love phrases and sentiments
- Silver trinkets
- Thermometers (with an appropriate little poem about no matter the weather, his love is true)
- Embroidery scissors
COMMERCIALLY PREPARED PAPER VALENTINES
Apparently Valentines (sweethearts) became a bit more choosy later in the century. The ad, above, is from 1894. The one, below, comes from 1869 when commercially prepared paper valentines were popular and commonplace. And apparently not required to be highly personalized and unique in order to please the recipient.
Valentine cards could be mailed (and the decorum books and pamphlets of the era focus in the necessity of good manners in mailing the card postage paid rather than expecting the object of your affections to pay the postage upon delivery and to take care to post it) so the delivery was made on Valentine’s Day. Apparently more mail was delivered for Valentines than for Christmas in the late Victorian era.
Ready-made paper valentines were available from early in the 19th century. The advertisement, above from 1869 shows a book store by the name of Bergner’s offering Valentines (both fancy and comic) for one cent each (and upwards in price). By 1889 (20 years later), the average paper valentine cost $5 each… on ‘clearance’, after hours on the 13th. What on earth did the commercial paper valentine cost on the 10th of February (enough time to postmark it to your favorite gal)?
Remember the inflation calculator I offered some time ago in a blog post? That $5 in 1889 is equivalent to $131.58 in 2015. OUCH.
“To write a good love-letter you ought to begin without knowing what you mean to say and to finish without knowing what you have written.” ~Rousseau (quoted from the article, immediately above, from the Chicago Daily Tribune, 14 February 1889, page 9)
OLD WEST AND VALENTINES
But what about the Old West? The newspaper articles cited above are from San Francisco, Chicago, and points further east… but late enough the “Old West” was quite civilized, the transcontinental railway had linked the west coast to the rest of the union, and such things as commercially made valentines were available for purchase.
What was available to a man lucky enough to have a wife or sweetheart in the far reaches of frontier America?
- Courting Gifts of his own manufacture (wooden carving, a new piece of finely crafted furniture made with his own carpentry skills, even a small painting or sketch, a hand-written poem of his own creation, a pair of hand-sewn leather gloves, and many more options)
- A betrothal gift of family heirloom (a ring from great grandmother, for example)
- A carefully written love letter in his best penmanship as expert handwriting was seen as an art form all of its own
- a handmade greeting card put together with anything at his disposal–knowing ladies like frills and lace and ribbons, maybe even containing such extravagances available at most of the earliest country stores.
- If the years were far enough advanced [1894!]to have access to a mail-order catalog (and the hard cash to make a purchase), jewelry, hat-pins, watch-pins, chains, rings, etc. Anything a man could want to buy his sweetheart was pretty much available.
- Anything at all his Valentine needs… if he can get his hands on it. The Bride Lottery is set in a mining camp a hard stagecoach ride above Leadville, Colorado, in 1881. Sam owns the mercantile and as the arranged-for brides arrive, he stocks his store with courting gifts–anything the miners might want to buy for their gals. But he ends up giving Evelyn fabric to sew herself practical clothing that fits (as her girth is expanding). He’s a bit embarrassed by his decision for a courting gift (though it’s not Valentine’s Day). After all, how does a man admit his sweetheart needs bigger clothing with offending her tender sensibilities? [A deleted scene, in its entirety, is set in the store… and shows (among other things) the miners perusing the courting gifts.]
Up next! Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 3, wherein one married man (with two wives who don’t know a thing about one another) seeks to snare two more…entirely for financial gain.
You’ll find links for this Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, through Part 12, on each page of the Article Series. Any of the three links above will lead you there.
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Copyright © 2016 Kristin Holt, LC