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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Valentine's Day: How We Love It

In 1847 Esther Howland created the New England Valentine Company and sold mass produced cards across the nation. She is consider the "Mother of American Valentines."

                           Victorian Valentines were fancy and filled with cupids, doves and hearts.
This is the type of Valentine's card that elementary students gave in the late 1940s, with one for each classmate and one for the teacher.

“I fell in love with Ellen because she always laughed at the funny Valentines I sent her.”
This is a line from the play “Funny Valentines, A Romantic Comedy,” recently presented by a local cast at Court Street Arts in Haverhill. Co-director Peter Richards indicated he selected the play by D.R. Anderson because it was appropriate for the season.       

Twelve years ago Marianne Kelly wrote the following in this newspaper to honor Valentine’s Day. “Nearly 800 years before Valentine became patron saint of lovers, the Romans held a pagan festival in February, honoring Lupercus, the god of fertility. A lottery was held, and each young man chose the name of a young girl who would become his sexual companion for the remaining year.

This festival didn’t set well with Pope Gelasius, who feared the wrath of the Romans.  He decided to change the custom and replace the names of young women with saints, hoping the young men would emulate the life of a saint they chose. The virile young Romans were totally under-whelmed.

The Catholic Church, determined to end the lottery and the worship of Lupercus, searched for a suitable ‘lovers saint’ to take the fertility god’s place. They decided on Valentine, a bishop who was beheaded by Emperor Claudius in 270 A.D.

While in prison for opposing the emperor Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s blind daughter.  According to legend, he healed her by the sheer force of his love and faith.  Before being led to his death, Valentine wrote his beloved a note signing it, ‘From your Valentine.’

The pagan festival’s lottery died out, but Roman men sending handwritten messages of affection to their sweethearts signed Valentine’s name. And therein lays the origins of the Valentine’s card.”

 Europeans continued the tradition as early as the 15th century and by the 17th century it was widespread with a number of traditions connected with the day.

Valentine’s greetings made their way into American history and gained widespread popularity in the 1700s. By the 1820s those who wished to send a valentine could purchase paper made especially for that purpose. In the 1840s, commercially produced Valentine’s cards became more popular. 

Beginning in 1847 Esther Howland became the first to mass produce Valentine’s cards.  Using her father’s stationary store in Worchester, Massachusetts as her first outlet, she created the New England Valentine Company. Her cards were sold nationwide and won her the title “The Mother of American Valentines.”

 At the same time there was a growing fancy for hand-painted valentines. Valentine’s cards became even more popular in the period after the Civil War. Many cards were humorous and sent as a joke. Valentine’s post cards also became popular.

Did lovers in Vermont and New Hampshire become part of this tradition? Did romantic hearts beat beneath their taciturn exteriors? I turned to newspapers of the period from the 1860’s to the present to try to answer these questions  One thing is certain from this search, as Valentine’s Day became more commercialized nationally, it became so locally. 

The first advertisement for Valentine’s cards that I could find was in an 1851 edition of The Middlebury Register. It was just a couple of lines inserted in a store’s advertisement. Newspapers of the period included stories or poems during any time of the year reflective of the Victorians’ attraction to the idealized concept of romance.

In 1863 the Orleans Independent Standard of February 2 published “A Story of St. Valentine’s Day” about a wounded Union soldier’s love affair with his nurse. Another entitled “Valentine’s Story” appeared in March 1867.

The Bradford Opinion began to mention Valentine’s Day in the 1870s with very small advertisements.  In 1877 it offered cards for sale at its office. In 1883 Morrisville’s News and Citizen panned valentine poetry with the following: “There are not many Valentine’s writers, and I don’t think that if you hired one, you would find one distinguished name among them, or even one that you have heard from.”

 By the end of the next decade several references to celebrations appeared. In 1889 a Valentine’s Masquerade party and dance was held at Bradford’s Odd Fellows Hall. As local schools were generally closed on or near the 14th of February there was no mention of school parties. 

Little escaped the notice of local area reporters who wrote of residents’ illnesses, accidents, travels and visitors. It was not uncommon for groups to hold oyster suppers in early February, but these were more likely to observe Lincoln’s birthday than Valentine’s observances. One exception was in 1884 when a St. Valentine’s Oyster supper was held at the Bradford Congregational Church parlors, admission 20 cents.

In 1894 The United Opinion ran a reminder “Wednesday is St. Valentine’s Day” in the Bradford column as well as a large ad for J. M. Warden store that included the following: “See our Valentines! This week!” An ad for a comedy entitled “Sweethearts” sponsored by the Eastern Star included the following: “If you have a sweetheart come and bring her; if not, come and find her at 7:30 o’clock, p.m. Admission 10 cents.”

Two years later a Bradford Congregational Church social was held at which it was promised “Cupid will present each one patronizing the Pink Tea with a valentines from his quiver.” One local store advertised the “finest valentines procurable.” In 1898 the Dramatics Club of West Newbury held a Valentine Sociable at the local schoolhouse.  

The local Eastern Star seemed to be a most consistent promoter of the celebration. Beginning in 1907 and for several years it sponsored a “Spinster Tea” promising “pretty valentines will be given as souvenirs.” In Fairlee in 1910 a young adults’ party was held and in North Thetford a Valentine’s dinner. 

After the end of World War I, Valentine’s Day observances became even more common with references to school and church parties. One observer lamented that “machine-made valentines that we buy nowadays have lost the personal touch” and suggested that the modern young man “instead drops into a confectioner’s or florist shop.” An ad in the 1922 American Florist magazine promoted the theme “Say it with Flowers” suggesting a basket of flowers along with a “small bouquet of cigarettes” or a corsage or plant.

The Great Depression didn’t seem to put a damper on observances, although yearly outbreaks of subzero weather and measles might have. In the early 1930s the Bradford Ladies Society, the Corinth Red Cross and the Fairlee Community Circle had parties with holiday themes.

In 1935 Gove Bros’ Pharmacy in Bradford advertised “Valentines-all kinds, sizes and colors” and the newspaper carried news of school parties. The following year the renamed Gove and Bancroft’s Pharmacy offered Whitman’s Chocolates and “a Valentine greeting that meets with 
acclaim from everyone.” The dance held at the West Newbury Grange “lasted until quite an early hour, but was much enjoyed.” The Piermont Grammar School’s party featured a “post office that was a beautiful box made by 4 girls.”

During World War II, there was a shortage of sugar and therefore a shortage of Valentine’s candy.  Gove and Bancroft advertised valentines from 1 cent to 1 dollar, but mentioned that they had only 60 percent of the normal supply of chocolates.

Beginning in 1944 I checked each edition of the United Opinion or Journal Opinion  for Valentine’s-related advertisement in the two weeks prior to Feb. 14 as an indication of its significance locally. That year there was just one Valentines advertisement and a few parties. Several of these were farewell parties for departing servicemen.

In the late 1940s I was in Ramona Flanagan’s first and second grade classroom at the Orfordville school. It was normal to buy inexpensive cards for everyone in the class and one for the teacher.

Mrs. Flannigan had acquired a small vintage post office fixture featuring 30-40 boxes complete with combination locks and a window for the postmaster.  Each February it was set up in the classroom and the students took turns sorting the incoming valentine’s into each student’s mailbox prior to the party.

The number of advertisements and events continued about the same into the 1950s.  High school Winter Carnival Balls played a major role in the celebration of Valentine’s Day. In 1954 there was one advertisement connected with the day and reports of several parties. In 1958 February became the designated month for the Heart Fund with local drives.

A decade later there continued to be one advertisement for cards and candy.  But Valentine’s Day, 1964 fell on a Friday and there were advertised dances and parties in Bradford, Thetford and Topsham. George Smith’s Orchestra played at the Bradford Legion dance and admission was 50 cents. The Cliff Hall Trio played for dancing at the Happy Hour in Wells River. 

In the decades that followed commercialized Valentine’s Day became big business and the number of advertisements reflected that change. In addition to increased anticipation for gifts, the interstate opened the area to access to larger markets for those gifts. Connie Sanville, now publisher of this newspaper, indicated that the staff sought advertisements in those newly accessed markets. 

In 1974 the newspaper had four advertisements, largely local, in the two editions prior to Feb. 14.  A decade later there were10 with advertisements for clothing, cards, candy and flowers, but still within the circulation area. One local florist recalls that flower sales as Valentine’s gifts grew significantly in the 1980s and continues to make it one of the busiest holidays of the year.

 In 1994 the holiday fell on Monday and there were 13 advertisements including restaurants, beauty salons, motels, jewelry shops as well as the traditional ones. The businesses advertised ranged from Littleton to White River Jct.  .  

As the 2004 holiday came on Saturday, the number of advertisements increased to more than 15 with the same variety and extended locations as before. If the advertised services and products matched gifts given, expectations continued to rise. While dinner and perhaps a movie continued to be a favorite, considerable sums were spent on flowers and jewelry.  In 2004, it was reported that about half of men spent more than $50 on the celebration.

Between 2004 and 2014, the amount of money spent on gifts and outings increased.
Stores featured shelves of treats, cards and decorations. By the end of that decade the expenditure had risen to an average of $134. After accounting for inflation, that still represents an increase in spending although the number of advertisements in the Journal Opinion may have peaked.

The National Retail Federation reported that the decade had seen a significant increase in the number of purchases made online. Those who turned to the Internet spent more individually than those who bought gifts elsewhere.

The total spent by Americans on the holiday was over $17 billion, with men spending about twice as much as women on gifts for significant others. Americans also gave Valentine’s cards or gifts to family members, friends, teachers and colleagues and some even gave to their pets. The Federation predicts this year will see an increase in the amount spent.

Children’s parties, especially in public schools, have been complicated by modern sensitivities. Many schools have altered traditional customs, replaced them with healthy alternatives,   academic activities or banned them altogether. A check of local elementary schools reveals that they allow teachers to hold parties, with guidelines for healthy treats and inclusiveness.    

There are many who reject the commercialization of holidays in general and Valentine’s Day specifically. Having compared my meager spending on Valentine’s past with the national norm, I realize that my frugality was not so much a rejection of the day as a reflection of my thrifty upbringing. My wife has kindly indicated she didn’t feel neglected.

But on second thought, I may want to give some additional attention this year to flowers, candy, dinner and a movie or some other appropriate way of celebrating this holiday for lovers.