Oh the romance of a “real” Victorian valentine. Just like Christmas, Victorians understood the true meaning of Valentine’s Day before it became the Hallmark Holiday it is now. (Save me that piece of heart-shaped chocolate from CVS.) Things were simpler “back then.” The Victorians hand-made unique valentines to send as tokens of affection to their true love. These are sentiments we’ve read, seen on television and sometimes heard from our visitors. When guests visit historic sites and house museums, many are in search of the authentic and are looking for a long ago romantic past now lost.
But we as museum professionals and historians are here to burst their bubbles. (Need a party pooper – just call a museum geek.) Holiday customs that are so familiar to us today, like sending valentines and decorating Christmas trees, are actually relatively modern traditions that expanded in the 19th century through entrepreneurship.
One example is Esther Howland (1828-1904), often referred to as the “Mother of the American Valentine,” who started mass production of valentines in 1848 by forming the New England Valentine Company in Worcester, Massachusetts. The assembly line operation Howland started in her home led to a thriving business grossing $100,000 annually by 1881.1
But even in the Victorian era, some were criticizing the merits of exchanging valentines. An editorial in the February 14, 1856 New York Times criticized the practice of sending manufactured valentines such as the ones produced by Howland’s New England Valentine Company:
“Our beaux and belles are satisfied with a few miserable lines, neatly written upon fine paper, or else they purchase a printed Valentine with verses ready made, some of which are costly, and many of which are cheap and indecent.
“In any case, whether decent or indecent, they only please the silly and give the vicious an opportunity to develop their propensities, and place them, anonymously, before the comparatively virtuous. The custom with us has no useful feature, and the sooner it is abolished the better.”
But as we set the record straight regarding authentic holiday celebrations in our historic house museums, let us not forget the personal significance of these events. Historic house museums by their inherent nature focus on the significance of the home as we provide insight into larger social, political and economic themes. The home is where families came together to celebrate triumphs, mourn losses, and commemorate major life events and holidays. These personal stories have relevancy to the modern audiences we yearn to engage and educate.
The other side of the interpretation equation is our visitors who often experience our museums with loved ones, both family and friends. Their communal experience, the conversations they share and even the dialogues they continue after their visit in the car ride home or over coffee at a café are important parts of their experience. Just like holiday celebrations, a visit to our museum can itself become a cherished family memory with loved ones.
Even as we set the story right about historic holiday traditions and deconstruct romantic visions of the historic past, we should remember the impact of personal stories and experiences. It wasn’t better “back then” but there are similarities with today we can use to bring audiences together to provide a better understanding of the past. Don’t worry about mailing me a card to say “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Just send chocolate!
1 The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester , MA holds a large collection of valentines from New England Valentine Company.
— Carrie Taylor, Director, 1865 Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum, Providence, RI