Life | People

Valentine's Day history: When Feb. 14 meant tender effusions (but no spooning!)

By Bill Loomis / The Detroit News

Saint Valentine’s Day dates back to the fifth century, but the practice of exchanging Valentine’s Day cards began in the 19th century, and quickly caught on. As a writer in Graham’s American Monthly — a popular national magazine of the 19th century — observed in 1849, “Saint Valentine’s Day … is becoming, nay it has become, a national heyday.”

In 1842, young men in Detroit secretly delivered their valentines by hand, as the U.S. Postal Service had not yet set up shop in Detroit. Detroiter John Webb Chester recalled those days when he was interviewed in his 90s by the Detroit Free Press in 1914: “Oh, of course we used to send them. All the boys did. … We would go to a house where the girl of our choice lived, stick our valentines under the door, and then disappear as fast as ever we could.”

In 1848 the Detroit post office handled 700 valentines. “And who doubts,” wrote a reporter of the day, “that many a heart beat high with pleasant emotions at the receipt of some of those tender effusions.” Today, the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates Americans exchange 190 million valentines a year, most of them sent to kids.


Satin, lace and flowers

The earliest valentines typically were original poetry, hand written on scented paper. Soon valentines came with printed sentiments, and sometimes hefty price tags. In 1888 the latest valentine was called the “Novelty.” It was a luxury item, selling for $4 or $5, made in the form of a satin fan, embossed and framed in satin with the card in the center. An advertisement declared, “For beauty of design and general elegance, it meets the highest standards.”

By 1907 the post office in Detroit was handling more than 25,000 valentines, ranging from one-penny postcards to $100 elaborate affairs with lace, flowers, candy and sometimes a silk garter. At one company in New York City, more than 500 women were employed to hand-paint love sentiments on satin or plush shells.

Walter V. McKee, manager of a downtown Detroit bookstore, told The Detroit News in 1924, “We used to put the books aside and devote practically the whole store to valentines. In those days a man would come in and buy his wife or sweetheart a valentine that had about six yards of lace on it and weighed more than a Thanksgiving turkey. Nowadays he can get her a second-hand automobile for the same amount.”

Red roses consistently have been the most popular floral choice for Valentine’s Day, but other blooms have gone in and out of favor. In 1933, a story in The Detroit News declared that “gardenias will be the favored way of saying ‘Will you be mine’ this year.” It also noted that “violets used alone have lost their popularity, florists explain, because they are too heavy to pin onto the sheer fabrics women are wearing now.”

Flower baskets were a good deal that year, in the height of the Depression, costing $3, or $1.50 for a corsage, compared to three years previous, when baskets started at $7 and corsages at $5.

Pestering the post office

In the late 1800s if your sweetie was in the city it was proper to send the expensive valentine by messenger. But that changed, and the post office dreaded the day. The irregular shapes and accompanying gifts meant the valentines had to be sorted and stamps needed to be canceled by hand. Flowers fell out of vases; candy boxes broke on the floor, making a huge mess. Perfumed valentines made the post office smell like a bordello. In 1910, Detroit’s Superintendent of City Delivery, Oliver Brooke, reported that young ladies would pester him with complaints starting at 8 in the morning that their postman had not arrived yet with their valentine.

A Detroit woman recalled waiting for the postman and a possible valentine in 1919 in the Detroit Free Press:

“I used to station myself behind the curtain in our parlor, and stand with fluttering heart as he came up the street. When he really turned into our house and left one or more mysterious looking envelopes addressed to me — oh, I leave the rest to your imagination!”

By 1930 it was reported that Valentines Day was second only to Christmas for retail spending and gift giving.

Valentines became nuanced and complex with many symbols, such as the color of a ribbon bow fastened to the card. “Ribbon valentines” were multiple pieces of paper strung with differently colored ribbons. Each piece of paper had a question, and each ribbon represented an answer. The valentine recipient would respond by picking one ribbon and returning it to the giver.

The following poem from 1908 explains the different meaning of the colors:


If of me you sometimes think,

Send me back the bow of pink;

If to me your heart is true,

Send me back the bow of blue;

If to me your heart is dead

Send me back the bow of red;

If you have another fellow

Send me back the bow of yellow.


On Februaries that were leap years a custom allowed ladies to send valentines to their beaus. In 1848 an advertisement read: “This being leap year the ladies can write with a greater degree of freedom. And doubtless there is many a gallant, nice young gentleman’s mind filled with bright anticipation of the rich and racy valentines in store for him on that day.”

A century later, in 1947, a Detroit News editorial tried to put a finger on the enduring value of Valentine’s Day: “For as little as a nickel a child can still find something which he feels says better than he could what is in his soul; though in this he may be mistaken, for the sweetest valentines are home-made and composed by the sender. The adult is not as rich as he should be who has not one or two such somewhere tucked away.”


The nasty valentine

By the late 1890s postcards began to replace the lacey, elaborate valentines of the mid-century. Also, “vinegar valentines” began to appear. These valentines were not the romantic love greeting, but comic and rude, described in the day as “billingsgate” (crude and bawdy) or “burlesque” (comic and ribald). These valentines were popular to send to co-workers, “old maids,” topors (bachelors), landlords, or a disliked neighbor. They could be quite mean-spirited.

One store in Detroit advertised that their comic valentines, while never vulgar, would guarantee to “hit hard.” Another retailer announced that it was now time to give your enemies a “pinch” with a mocking postcard. Selection was based in part by profession; there were mocking postcards for teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers and more; it was said they were especially popular with the working class. This one was sent to a cook, as reported in New York Notes:

“Our cook got one [a valentine] that didn’t make her happy one bit. It represented a woman weighing about 1,500 pounds toasting an enormous heart on a kitchen stove…. She isn’t an ill-natured woman either, this cook of ours. But the valentine touched her on a raw spot and she just broke loose and tore around like a mule in a colony of hornets!”

Charles C. Kellogg, Detroit’s postmaster, told The Detroit News in 1928, “Why, every year, after St. Valentine’s Day, we get angry communications from people who have received these things, asking us to trail down the senders and have them put in jail. Then, too, our carriers are subjected to a lot of undeserved abuse and rebukes as a result of the so-called comic valentines. Just as though he had anything to do with it!”

Humorous but less caustic, more friendly valentines were sent to “affinities” — a term for dear friends. “Affinity Valentines” were extremely popular and by 1858 the national magazine Harpers Weekly reported that half of all valentines sold were humorous. One popular valentine in 1894 for smokers was a bronzed cigar tied with ribbons and a note: “May our friendship not go up in smoke.”


For better or verse

The Detroit Women’s Writers Club during the month of February dedicated their talents to writing Valentine’s Day verse. But they didn’t limit members to romantic sentiments. Club president Alice E. Bartlett, whose pen name was Birch Arnold (apparently she took this name because her hair was white), encouraged members to write whatever they chose. One member in 1919 wrote about the newly won women’s right to vote:


‘To Every Woman’


Last year towards valentines of lace,

Your hearts and darts your mind might loan;

Sweet sentiment of verse you would trace —

but not now, in nineteen nineteen.



You love a printed slip;

For candidates and booths you’re keen:

And towards the polls you’ll make your trip;

For you can vote, nineteen nineteen.


The danger of spooning!

Of course, valentines frequently led to love, and love became a serious public problem for some. The term “spooning” first appeared in Detroit newspapers in the early 1870s. It’s a term used for a wide spectrum of behavior, from a goofy love-sick crush, simply sitting with your boyfriend or girlfriend to talk privately and hold hands, to heavy making out, and beyond. The old meaning of the word seems to have no connection to the current use of “spooning” as cuddling front to back like spoons in a drawer. However, in the past young people seemed to be doing it everywhere — even in church during the service.

In 1909 at the Disciples Church in Marietta, Ohio, Reverend Henry W. Ireland declared from the pulpit that there must be no more hugging and kissing during the service. As he explained: “The kiss is like an intoxicant and like the saloon, must go. The nectar quaffed from the red lips is more fruitful of consequences than any alcoholic beverage ever distilled. I think kissing is the worst thing a young woman can do, and the amount of hugging and kissing some of our girls do, of our best families, is literally a menace to morality.”

In Detroit in 1917 at 99 Elmwood a young spooning couple fell over a porch rail and hit the very solid ground in each others arms. The woman sued the landlord for $500 but it was dismissed. The justice declared that the spooning was responsible for the fall and saw no cause for action.

One of the places for “spooners” at night was on the Jefferson Avenue street car. Couples locked lips as the conductor rolled his eyes. But by far the most popular spot for spooning in Detroit was Belle Isle. In 1904 Park Commissioner Robert E. Bolger was outraged that spooners loitered in the park past midnight, and he wanted them arrested. The corporation counsel said he lacked the authority.

In 1914, utterly disgusted with the lovelorn spooning in secluded shady dells, under the Belle Isle bridge or known rendezvous points at the far ends of Belle Isle, Lieutenant Commissioner Louis G.Kling and two police officers armed themselves with a powerboat and powerful searchlight to motor quickly to any secluded point on the island and blaze their beam through the densest foliage. They vowed to arrest any couples who were “wont to linger with their heart’s idol.”

In 1905, neighbors at the corner of Willis and Brush reported on one morning seeing on their lawns garters and bits of lingerie, “much to their horror.” Nurses from a local hospital were falsely accused.

Church-sanctioned spooning parlors

A solution to all this public spooning was in the works: spooning parlors. To help the love-sick, churches and the Salvation Army Home for Girls in Detroit opened “spooning parlors” so young women did not have to meet their boyfriends “on street corners or in the dance halls.” While it seemed like a risky direction for churches, spooning parlors were popular across the country. In 1913 at the North Baptist Church in New York City, the Rev. John E. Gunn and his wife established free spooning parlors with a gas fireplace, piano, a cooking stove, and un-shaded electric lighting — the church had discussions regarding how bright the lighting should be. And, as the Rev. Gunn enthusiastically added, “plenty of sofas.”

The Rev. Gunn explained to the Reading (Pa.) Eagle, “There are countless working girls living in furnished rooms who cannot receive young men and keep their reputations. … They are entitled to have some place where they may enjoy the advantages that help their more fortunate sisters to happy wifehood.”

Naturally, the spooning parlor was chaperoned. Kissing — or “osculation,” as Victorians formally referred to it — was not permitted or even discussed. For instance, when the reporter asked Reverend Gunn if he planned to allow kissing, he grew indignant and refused to answer, appalled by the question. While some spooning parlors allowed couples to hold hands, the church authorities in Chicago spent weeks discussing whether to allow this.

Spooning parlors had their skeptics. A pastor from St. Paul remarked, “Spooning parlor? What’s wrong with the choir loft?”

Regardless, the spooning parlors all had long waiting lists.

First there’s love, then there’s marriage

In June of 1910 — “the Brides Month” — the city of Detroit recorded 988 marriages. They hoped to beat that record in June of 1911, but that year, the last day of June fell on a Friday, and it was considered bad luck to marry on Friday. Weddings always were way below average that day.

Alex Stuart, marriage license clerk, said, “There’s no time when people are so superstitious as when they are about to be married. And Friday seems to be the pet bugaboo and scarehead of all the superstitious. … Call it what you will, a relic of the dark ages … the superstition is there.”

In 1909 Cupid spent a lot of time trapping the Michigan State Telephone Company “hello-girls” (telephone operators) in his net. According to the hello-girls’ superintendent, “There are many reasons why a telephone operator is susceptible to Cupid’s darts. She is just the right age, 18 to 21. Those are Cupid’s halcyon days. The girls at the switchboard are a likely looking lot too, as neat and attractive and generally intelligent an aggregation of girls one would want to know.”

Detroit public schools lost 50 teachers a year to marriage in 1915, which meant they married and became homemakers.

Love gone bad

Couples got divorced in Detroit years ago, albeit some for reasons we would likely question today. In 1920 Detroit Wayne County Circuit Court in one month recorded more divorces than marriages. The following is a sample of Detroiters granted divorce by a judge and the reasons given:

1835: A divorce was granted to a man whose wife threw hot water on him, beat him on the head with tongs, endeavored to pick out his eyes with a fork, and committed various other acts.

— 1911: Frank W. Wills’ wife said her husband left on a business trip and never came back.

1911: Mrs. Harper left Joseph after tearing his clothes off in Washington D.C., where he claimed it was balmy but not comfortable enough to be walking around without clothing. No reason for the clothes-tearing was recorded.

1911: John Wren took his wife Winifred to live with his brother. When the brother objected, Winifred was forced to go back to her parents or starve to death, since John did not like to work.

1920: Madge Frazier, who owned a dancing school, refused to dress at 11:30 at night and go to the store for kerosene to warm the chicken incubator, so Alfred, her husband, broke every egg in the incubator.

1920: Nora Wagner claimed her husband, Otto, forced her to eat horse meat to save money.

1920: Marcella Lamb said her husband Franklin Lamb was so jealous of her that when he insisted she paid too much close attention to another man at a dance, he took her into a taxicab and spanked her.

Detroit’s finest valentine writers

Judge James Campbell was 23 in 1846. He was deemed the best poet and valentine writer in Detroit. As an unusual practical joke he would write valentines in his most feminine handwriting, address them to male friends and superiors then watch them scurry about to find the woman who sent them. But his eye was on Sarah Sibley, daughter of Michigan’s famous Judge Solomon Sibley.

In 1806, Judge Sibley became mayor of the village of Detroit. He held the presidential appointment as U.S. district attorney for the Michigan territory and then he was the territory’s representative to Congress. Finally, from 1824 to 1827, he served on the territorial Supreme Court. His daughter, Sarah, was born in 1821 and was considered a stunning beauty. Campbell wrote to her:

’Tis said that angels from the sky

will sometimes deign to visit earth

and though invisibly they fly

They bring us thoughts of heavenly birth.



Thou art my angel; in thine eye

A wild and radiant light doth beam

So spirit like, I can but sigh

And feel my love a hopeless dream.



Thou I may speak no more of love

Still will I worship from afar

And until life’s sad journeys o’er

Thou still shalt be my guiding star!



However, Sarah knew the handsome judge to be a flirt, and responded with her own verses.



I think your taste in beauty, Sir,

has gone a bit too far.

When every pretty face in town

becomes your guiding star.



You used to praise my golden curls;

I found that well enough

Till you were struck by Lizzie’s braids

And then with Annie’s puffs.



You say there’s light in Helen’s smile,

And soul in Fanny’s eyes;

Are you in love with twenty girls?

Hit by each shaft that flies?



T’is well to love the beautiful

In an abstract sort of way.

But seek only one embodiment,

Nor let your fancy stray.


Sarah Sibley never married, and was still living in Detroit at age 91 in 1912.


Wistful valentine memories



Times were changing in the early 20th century, and some lamented the commercialism and lesser significance of the special day, as this excerpt from the Detroit Free Press of 1914 captured:


They (women friends) were talking about Valentine’s Day and lamenting, as many of us do, the lack of that tender, romantic interest which formerly was associated with the day.

“I’ll never forget the first valentine I ever received,” said the woman who was considered the most successful but the most blasé one in the group.

“It was sent by a freckled face boy next door, and the envelope had smudges all over it from the dirty fingers, with which he had laboriously spelled out my name.

“I was so ashamed I threw it out the window. But that night I crept outdoors and found it and hid it away in a box that was on the top shelf of my closet.

“A number of years later this boy asked me to be his valentine for life, but I refused because he still had his way to make in the world and I was worldly wise and longed for wealth and luxury.

“He died last week and left a fortune of thousands of dollars to found an orphan asylum. Here I am a single woman still. As I look back upon it now, I realize that he was the one man in the world who really loved me. And I — but what’s the use. There will be no more valentines from him.”


Valentine verse

Turn of the century sentiments from Valentines:


“Wilt thou be mine? Dear love reply-

Sweetly consent or else deny:

Whisper softly – none shall know.

Wilt thou be mine – ay or no?”


“My dearest dear

I have pictured here

Your heart and mine”


“Oh, how I have loved my own lady fair,

Love her gray eyes and love her tangled hair,

Love her sweet smile like sunshine on the sea,

Love her best of all for loving me.”


“I lift my eyes to all that makes life wise

And see no farther than my lady’s eyes”