Think Valentine’s Day was all hearts and romance for nineteenth century teens? Think again. You put a lot of effort in creating your own special valentine for your sweetie, from the design to the sentiment. Purchased valentines might include poems, but often they only had a spot for you to write in your own personalized verse. Being a wit was highly prized during the nineteenth century. What was the poor average lad or lass to do when faced with that blank sheet of paper?
Buy a Valentine Writer. Some enterprising souls actually stood on street corners or sold these little books to stationery stores. The books contained verses for sending a valentine, as well as verses to use to respond to a valentine sent to you. Some verses were highly sentimental. Other books contained comic or even lewd verses. There were verses for widowed folks, young people, older people, sailors, and soldiers. Here’s one for a widow:
A widower to a widow sues
And hopes his suit she’ll not refuse.
You have a child and so have I.
They may cement affection’s tie.
Our fortunes I believe are equal.
Let’s join to make a pleasing sequel.
At least such is my fond design
If you’ll consent, dear Valentine.”
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. During much of the nineteenth century, postage was paid by the recipient. In other words, if you send me a valentine, I get the privilege of paying for it. You can probably guess some of the problems with this practice. A pretty girl might get dozens of valentines, all of which her poor papa has to pay for. That might not be so bad, considering that one of those valentine senders could turn out to be a wealthy suitor and eventually son-in-law. However, there is a less romantic side to this practice. It seemed a grand joke to send insulting valentines to plain girls, telling them how ugly and ungainly they were, and their fathers had to pay the cost of seeing their daughters abused! The fathers frequently appealed to the Post-Master General or the Minister of the Post Office. In most cases, appeals were denied. However, when the valentine in question was found to particularly rude or lewd, postage was refunded.
I’d like to see a Valentine Writer come up with a poem to answer one of those! It might go something like this:
Dear sir, since you lack taste and wit
Your sad note mattered not a bit.
But if I see you in the street
Or if perhaps we chance to meet
I do advise you, pray take heed,
That your pompous self will likely need
The services of a surgeon’s skill
Or else the penning of a Last Will.
For your downfall I’d likely plan.
At least I would, were you a man.