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Sweet, Sour and Bittersweet Valentines

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 15, 2014

  • Munitions girls would sometimes slip a message in to the boys on the front line

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LOVE is on the cards this week as we look at how our forebears celebrated Valentine's Day.

Edwardian hostesses loved to plan romantically-themed events on Valentine's Day. These affairs were often very competitive, with ladies vying to outdo one another in a bid to make their special Valentines do a cut above the others. And, just like today, there were ladies' magazines which told them how to go about it.

An article in the Ladies Home Journal offered romantic fun for married couples – in the form of a 'Reminiscence Party'. Essentially, it was an Edwardian version of the old TV game show, 'Mr and Mrs' – where husbands were 'judged' on their sense of romance. Each husband had to "write a description of their wife's wedding gown, to be read aloud when finished."

In most cases, the feature writer adds, "groans accompanied the writing of papers, along with much laughter at the reading of them". Little wonder, as the husbands invariably got the colour or style of their wives' wedding dresses wrong!

But, as the writer notes, there could be exceptions, if the chap was wily enough: "cleverest of all is the man who, instead of writing, is warmly applauded for saying that he had seen nothing at his wedding but the look in his bride's dear eyes."

At this point, our writer suggests this little party game might re-kindle flames long dormant – "For a little while, each husband lives over again the joys of his wedding day, and every man declares on leaving that he spent the most delightful evening of the season." Of course, that might have just been relief at finally escaping!

A more bizarre suggestion for a Valentine's do was throwing a 'Bird Party'. Our writer says: "An idea that is rather out of the ordinary is to have the guests appear as birds, this date being one on which birds are supposed to choose their mates and begin building their nests."

Hmm ... and it gets worse as the writer suggests having "a round refreshment table edged with branches and straw, quite like a veritable nest of gigantic proportions. The refreshments served in paper eggs will keep up the illusion."

For maximum effect, the hostess told her guests to choose which type of bird to come as, from a list including robins, sparrows, doves and eagles etc. When the guests arrived, they were paired up with "mates" according to their bird species. Apparently, "Another really funny element ... is that masculine and feminine ideas of what they should look like differ so widely that when the time comes to mate choosing arrives, many a robin or sparrow fails to choose its mate." Sounds like it was enough to give you the bird!

There were also Valentine's parties for mixed age groups of family and friends. In this category, fortune telling parties were very popular. For these, the writer suggests making a large heart, "about six feet tall, made of barrel hoops and wire covered with turkey-red cotton, against a white box or clothes horse covered with sheets. Cut two slits in the heart; above one write Lassies, above the other, Lads.

Then, all you had to do was tie a wooden dart, painted gold, to the heart. To the other side of the point of the dart you attached a piece of gold coloured cloth to form a pocket large enough to hold a tiny envelope. Lads and lassies could then seek their fortunes by thrusting the dart into the respective openings.

To complete this Valentine tableau a pretty girl dressed as the Queen of Hearts was required to stand at one side of the giant heart, to "explain how wise counsel may be had for the future". Another girl stood behind the heart "to slip an envelope in the dart each time it is inserted". Inside each tiny envelope were carefully prepared fortunes, written in advance by "someone well acquainted with the aims and aspirations of the invited guests ... if the fortunes are cleverly written this party will prove a very merry one."

Cupid's Parties were also all the rage. For these, invitations were sent out, in Cupid's name, and "the little god ... represented by a boy dressed in a white linen suit. He should have pink paper wings tinted with gold, and a pink rose for a boutonniere. Provide him also with a jaunty cap and a bow and arrow.

It makes you wonder how many young lads did their utmost to avoid such embarrassment!

But, our writer seems totally unconcerned about injured male pride. Poor young Cupid has to "pass to each guest a pencil and a sheet of white paper decorated with a pink and gold heart, on which ten letters of the alphabet are written, that have been dictated at random, by the guests in turn." The guests then have to make up ten words, beginning with the ten letters. Not only that, the ten words "must form an appropriate Valentine message".

Not content with giving everyone a headache with these romantic brainteasers, the cringe factor grew worse, as each Valentine message had to be addressed "For my Lady Fair", "Sir Knight of the Roses" or "Queen of the Revels". Poor young Cupid then had to collect the messages, give them to the hostess, who read them out without revealing the writers' identities. Prizes were awarded to the lady and gentleman "writing the cleverest message".

But, Valentine's Day didn't always mean fun and frivolity. Victorians and Edwardians might send "Vinegar Valentines" – nasty cards foreshadowing modern internet hate mail. In those days, Valentine Cards weren't confined to sweethearts. People sent them to friends, neighbours, teachers and even bosses.

Some were humorous and meant to be good natured digs. But, many Vinegar Valentines were reserved for anyone you disliked or whose behaviour you disapproved of. The irony of this last reason often escaping the mindless bullies who sent them!

The Valentine tradition of anonymity also meant such cards could be very cruel, often scape-goating anyone who didn't conform to the so-called norm. Even worse, during much of the 19th century, there was no such thing as a pre-paid stamp, the person who got the mail having to pay for it. So victims of Vinegar Valentines were actually paying to receive the insults.

One hundred years ago this February was the last Valentine's Day before the outbreak of the Great War. For the next four years, most Valentines would be poignant reminders of what a whole generation was losing, amidst the senseless carnage.

More of that to come in the Bugle's special May publication for World War One's centenary year.

For now, I leave you with a heart warming Valentine story from those awful times, from the British Newspaper Archive.

According to a piece published on 27 February 1919 in the 'Western Daily Press', during the war, female munition workers – 'Munitionettes' – had a romantic way of boosting the troops' morale. Apparently the girls used to "write little notes, place them in the munition cases to be despatched to the front, in the hope that they would reach some romantically inclined soldier. One message thus sent ran:

If you're single, send a line;

If you're married, never mind."

They may have been tongue in cheek, but I'm betting the notes brightened the darkness of the trenches for a while.

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