Peggy Keener: Hearts, roses … and a sour note

Published 5:39 pm Friday, March 3, 2023

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Now that Valentine’s Day is behind us and all that lovey dovey business is over, I thought it would be interesting to tell you some Valentine background.

Surprisingly, it is not what you might assume, as this holiday actually has had a colored unfolding.

Lost in history is the certainty of when Valentine’s Day began, but here is one rather creditable report. Long, long ago Roman Emperor Claudius II heartlessly stopped all pending marriages for any young men he wished to recruit into his army. (Talk about a good way to quash recruiting!) It was his belief that married men did not make good soldiers. (Try telling that to our military heroes of today!)

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Nevertheless, a feisty Roman priest named Valentine defied these orders and continued to perform marriages. To no one’s surprise, least of all his own, Valentine was eventually arrested and thrown into the dungeon. Still Romeo’s heart kept up its romantic beat. Before long he was captivated to distraction when he became ferociously smitten with the jailer’s vision impaired, though captivating, daughter. (An excellent example of love being blind.)

Before his pesky execution, however, our Lothario miraculously healed his sweetheart’s blindness. With the noose about to encircle his philandering neck, we don’t know just how he accomplished this amazing feat. Did he instruct his love to eat only carrots for days on end? Had he previously been a Mayo optician? Or was he the original incarnation of Oral Roberts? But, before his painful demise, alas, he wrote her a final amorous note. In flowing script he signed it –” From Your Valentine.”

Boom! A holiday was born.

But hold on. It didn’t happen overnight, mind you. It took a few years. Eventually in A.D. 500, Pope Gelasius established a Valentine’s Day to replace a randy pagan fertility festival. (Don’t know about you, but I’d take genuine affection over lasciviousness any day!)

The oldest known Valentine in existence was a poem written in A.D. 1415 to the wife of the Duke of Orleans while he was being held prisoner in the Tower of London. (Hmmm, seems that captivity conjures up feelings of sentimentality. Like what else does a guy have to think about while he’s being stretched on the rack?)

Popularity for the holiday got going in Great Britain in the 17th Century. But, one hundred years later, it really reached an almost fever pitch. (True passionate crushes apparently require a slow smoldering build-up.) By then gallant swains and bewitching tarts were exchanging small tokens and savory notes. Then in 1800, the hankering in their hearts was made easier when printed cards began to replace hand-written letters.

But, before we go any further, the Brits don’t get all the credit for Valentines. Way ahead of them was good ‘ol romantic America. Yes, our manufactured cards began to appear in the early 1850s.

Do not think it was a Mr. Hallmark who was the creator. The inspiration came from a demure (though coquettishly flirty), young lady named Esther Howland who happened—quite out of the blue—to receive an elaborate Valentine. She was so taken with it that she was inspired to create her own cards. One could say that she was the “Mother of the American Valentine.”

As fortune would have it, Esther’s father just happened to own a large establishment where he sold books and stationery in Worcester, Massachusetts. Esther pleaded with him until he became weary of her entreaties and ordered paper lace and frilly supplies from England and New York.

Esther was in business!

That first year she had hopes of selling $200 worth of cards. (No small amount in 1850.) Her helpful brother, a salesman for the family business, took a dozen samples with him on his next sales trip. He returned with a $5,000 (yowzer!) order in advance sales! (Go Bro!)

Of course young Esther had to hastily muster up help from her friends and family. But before she knew it, her business was hatched. Eventually, she would be selling $100,000 annually. (Obviously there were a heck of a lot of shy bleeding hearts in the late 1800s, who needed assistance in expressing their adoration.)

In time Esther joined forces with Edward Taft and founded the New England Valentine Company. Then in 1881, George C. Whitney, seeing a good thing, bought her business. He combined it with his existing company, the Whitney Valentine’s Company. Whitney’s son continued the business until 1942 when wartime paper shortages caused the business to close. (Sad music here.)

But, I cannot leave this story yet. Were you aware that Valentine’s Day wasn’t always about posies and sweets? No, no! As usual, there always has to be some cold-hearted malcontents who are bent upon spoiling a perfectly good-intentioned enterprise.

Get this. In the Victorian Era, millions of horror struck folks in the U.S. and England were sent commercially made “vinegar valentines.” Just as they suggest, these cards were sent to disgruntled, irritating people who ranked high on the unpopular charts. Examples of this were unwanted admirers (stalkers!), haughty snobs who put on airs, and even unlovable, cut-throat business competitors. These undesirables ranged from sailors to surgeons. (Hope the senders waited until after their pending surgery!)

These cards were known as Vinegar Valentines.

By the mid-19th Century, half of all the valentines sold were vinegar valentines. (Oh, say it isn’t so!) Here’s an example (and I would suggest you read it out loud with accompanying dramatic oratory for the greatest impact).

You’re as vulgar a cad as I’d ever wish to meet

And yet you’re devoured by pride and conceit.

But I fancy before long that you will find out

That everyone thinks you’re an ignorant lout!

Ouch! Here’s another one:

You look so lovely in that dress

I even love your hat.

Is it okay to tell the world

You’ve gotten sorta fat?

And another:

My Valentine, I love you so,

You fill my heart with bliss.

If you’d just put your teeth back in

I might enjoy your kiss.

And there you have it, my friends. Love gone sour. Thank goodness for all the enthusiastic grade schoolers who have down through the years decorated shoe boxes for their classroom’s Valentine deliveries. Because who wouldn’t agree that we can all use a little love? Indeed, a whole bunch more love.