Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Valentine's customs from the past

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Do you value old-fashioned romance?Photo / Thinkstock
Do you value old-fashioned romance?Photo / Thinkstock

Once upon a time, I was 14 years old at my friend's birthday party. Cookies and Cream ice cream had just arrived in New Zealand, and it was generally a very nice time having bowls of that with no real thoughts of boys or boyfriends to muddy the fun.

Suddenly, however, news spread that one of the guests was having quite a dramatic weep in the garden on the trampoline. 'What's the matter with her?' I asked one of the other girls (possibly a bit unkindly). 'Oh,' was the reply, 'it's because romance and love will never be like it was in the olden days, ever again. It really gets her down'.

HA! At the time I found that highly amusing. Beyond the occasional (and wildly adult-seeming) 7th former who caught my eye, boys hadn't really featured for me yet. What did I care if they arrived in horse and cart with love notes, or three hours' late, stoned and barely able to speak? (Actually, one of my very first dates was like that, and I can now say with some authority that horse and cart would have been the better option.)

Anyway: 16 years after that girl cried on the trampoline, as I researched olden-day Valentine's customs and nearly died several times of cute, I suddenly realised: Trampoline Weeper had a point! I don't know how she already knew, but there was a degree of innocence and propriety back then - 'then' being pre-iPhone times, obv - that will never return.

But if only it would! Old-fashioned-people's romantic traditions were so adorable I can hardly bear it, like when a puppy is So. Bloody. CUTE you get that urge to squeeze it with all your might or throttle its little neck or something. (This.)

So. In celebration of how things were (and completely ignoring the fact every era comes with its own pitfalls and stresses, etc), here are some very sweet Valentine's Day things from years and years ago that make me love all the old-fashioned people like they are my own:

Draw the Name!

By the early 1700s, "drawing names" was one way people came to merge mouths. Sort of like Keys in a Bowl, except way less evocative of sex-starved suburban parents with white socks and mustaches. It took place on Valentine's Day eve, as explained by Author Henry Bourne in his posh 1725 book Antiquities of the Common People:

It is a ceremony, never omitted among the Vulgar, to draw Lots which they Term Valentines, on the Eve before Valentine-day. The names of a select number of one sex, are by an equal number of the other put into some vessel; and after that, every one draws a name, which...is called their Valentine, and is also looked upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.

I like to think they all sat in a rose garden and blushed as they picked the name they'd crushed on forever, but probably it was like spin the bottle back in form 2 when you always got that boy in your class who smelt funny and ate his scabs.

Similarly, whichever lady the man got on his bit of paper, he had to take her around for a year and buy her gifts whether they liked each other or not. Bad luck! But lovely and polite, which is the point here.

Wear a heart on the sleeve!

If you were a 18th century lady, you might discover a man was mooney-eyed over you on Valentine's Day because suddenly, pinned to his sleeve, would appear a paper heart with your name on it. How convenient is that?!

Never mind that if a boy did that today you'd probably pass him off as some earnest hipster with a Frankie magazine subscription - back in the day it was completely legit, and led to the expression "To wear one's heart on one's sleeve." Good.

Write a sweet thing!

In the mid 1800s, Valentine's cards came to be. Usually they were made of satin and lace and ornamented with flowers, ribbons, and images of fat cupids or birds. Here is a ditty from one that was printed in 1900:

LOVE'S DREAM

If I've dreamed a dream from fairyland,

Be sure you have your part in it.

I pledge my word, I give my hand

With more than half my heart in it.

YES! Whoever you were, let us go and hang out in fairyland, that sounds charming.

Admittedly, others were a little presumptuous: Weddings now are all the go, Will you marry me or no? (1850.) And: Oh! Goody your [sic] going to give me your heart. (1920.)

History!

The earliest recorded Valentine's verse was actually written by a Frenchman (of course it was) called Charles, Duke of Orleans, and the card sits in the British Museum.

He wrote it to his wife in the 1400s when he was locked up in the Tower of London for some reason and it says, in part: Je suis desja d'amour tanné
ma tres doulce Valentinée
. Which translates as I am already sick of love, My very gentle valentine. (As in, lovesick. You thought 'Tired of love', didn't you. That's because you're from 2013.)

But it wasn't all nice...

It should be said there was also a dark undercurrent to Valentine's Day in the mid-1800s. An anti-Valentine's Day movement took root, manifesting in alternative and "comic" cards with messages that insulted and mocked outcasts like gays, unwed women and early feminists.

As detailed by author Leigh Eric Schmidt in his very interesting book Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays, here is one such message, from 1850:

You ugly, cross, and wrinkled shrew,
You advocate of woman's rights,
No man on earth would live with you
For fear of endless fights

And another one, with the express aim of making ladies who hadn't found anyone yet feel like complete failures at life:

Oh what a very sorry sight it is,
to see an aged lady still a Miss,
to know that single she must live and work,
and in the end be toasted on a fork.

And for mouthy ladies in the public domain, who never shut up:

I send you this, as a warning, in time
To unscrew your long tongue, if you'd have a Valentine

Happy Valentine's Day everybody!

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