The Heart of Salem Still Beats — a Valentine's Day History

Wandering through Valentine history and Salem advertisements

Valentine's Day has a long and clouded history. When searching for its origins, you encounter a variety of explanations.

Many say the origin dates from third century Rome when a Christian priest named Valentine was martyred for performing marriages for Christians in defiance of the law. While he was executed on Feb. 14 and was later named a saint, the commemoration of the date as a time to express love didn’t occur for centuries.

In the fifth century, when Rome was no longer pagan, but Christian, various celebrations from pagan days persisted among the population. One such feast was Lupercalia, (Feast of the Wolf), which harkened back to Rome’s founding, and had evolved into a festival with animal sacrifices, feasts and rituals to ensure fertility.

According to some sources, Pope Galasius, in suppressing the pagan festivals of mid February, substituted Christian feasts such as Candlemas and St. Valentine's Day. Other scholars vehemently deny that this was the case. 

It’s probably safest to say we don’t know the origin of the modern celebration. We do know that the earliest written reference to Valentine’s Day is by Chaucer in his 1379 poem, Parliament of Fowls, where he associates St. Valentine’s Day with mating. It is not known whether this was fiction or based on some legend he used. Whatever the case, the romantic links were established and became more entrenched when Shakespeare, Spencer and Donne continued the associations in their writings.

In 1797, a British writer wrote a guidebook for young lovers struggling to write sentimental verses for their valentine. In the early 1800s, Valentine cards became very popular in England where they were mass produced and evolved into ones of lace and ribbons.

Valentines gradually caught on in the United States where they were first mass-produced in Worcester, Mass. by Esther Howland in 1847.
These rapidly took the place of hand-written love notes. It was not until 1915 that the Hallmark Card Company of Kansas City, Mo. started
producing cards and eventually holidays to go with them.

In examining old Salem newspapers from the late 19th century, it is interesting to note that St. Valentine's Days came and went with little notice given. In an 1891 newspaper, there is an ad from Merrill & Mackintire, stationers of 220 Essex St., touting that they have thousands of valentines in all kinds and styles. Those styles were both sentimental and comic, which were popular from the beginning. As the years progressed, more and more ads competed for the Valentine dollars.

In 1900, a news article described how young suitors would creep up to their intended’s house, leave a card, pull the bell and run away. The article went on depicting a darker side of Valentine’s Day in Salem.

It seems that “mischievous” boys and maybe even girls, would use the cover of Valentine's Day for pranks. The reporter described how many people hearing the bell ring would come to the front door and be pelted with peas blown from bean blowers. There were also reports of gates being unhinged, bells broken and random people accosted by the pea blowing youth. This “boys will be boys” mischief continued for several years as the police notes attest.

There were several incidents that police described as near riots where large groups of youth congregated with their bean blowers and wreaked havoc in neighborhoods. The police describe fences torn down, bells and blinds broken and beaned residents targeted by youths.

In one incident on the corner of Buffum and Mason streets, where the police
responded, a youth had climbed up a gas lamp and turned it on full, sending flames a foot above the pole. This type of misbehavior continued for the next several years. There were, however, a couple of blizzards that occurred on Valentine's Days that stopped any mischief from occurring.

In 1915, the reports noted there were very few incidents of mischief on that Valentine's Day. The boys confined themselves to the general ringing of house bells on the streets where they were delivering Valentine cards. Few pranks of the type associated with Valentines Day or Halloween occurred that year. From then on, there is little mention of the practice. As the newswriter of the day speculated, maybe they were “too old” to perform such destructive pranks. During this time, several organizations sponsored dances and parties in honor of the day.

As the century moved forward, the newspapers reflected the increased popularity and commercialization of Valentine's Day. No longer confined to small ads for cards, the ads and the admonitions grew. We have Daniel Low’s suggesting jewelry, Frank Cousin's Beehive offering flowers, New England Telephone advertising "the best Valentine is your voice" on an inexpensive long distance telephone call; Cents Bank suggesting a child’s pass book savings account as a lasting valentine; Almy’s selling novelties; Kay Jeweler’s selling sweetheart watches and a variety of candy and drug stores selling candy of all shapes and sizes. Some boxes look the same today as they did when first produced.

In the photo section, you see a selection of Valentine ads through the years. According to current sources, Valentine sales last year came in around 18.6 billion dollars. That certainly is commercialization on a grand scale.

I hope you enjoy the memories and the day…Happy Valentine's Day!

Donna Albino February 14, 2012 at 02:02 PM
Esther Howland was a Mount Holyoke alumna. I am too, and I am a voracious collector of Mount Holyoke memorabilia. I have quite a few Howland Valentines in my collection, and I've been tweeting about them all week. Anyone who is interested in seeing some can check out my website. Not all the cards at this page are Howlands; look for the ones with her name in the title. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~dalbino/gcards.html
Jerome Curley February 14, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Thanks Donna, great site. Esther Howland is the subject of today's Mass Moments at http://www.massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=52
Susan Manning February 15, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Donna: As an MHC alum myself, I am glad you were able to remind folks of the connection between this holiday and the college! I tell people every year, but it's nice to have your site to refer them to!
Dorothy Malcolm February 13, 2013 at 02:52 PM
Great article, Jerome. Loved all the images. Happy Valentine's Day tomorrow. --- DVM


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