Inspirational Stories of Love, Faith & Family Set in 19th Century America

Tag: love and romance

Peculiar Courting Customs

Long before the automobile, telephone and the Friday night football game defined modern dating, there was courtship. A serious, exclusive commitment usually sanctioned by both sets of parents, that often implied the couple was intending to marry. But in times when the opposite sex didn’t mingle in public unless chaperoned, how did perspective beaus let a lady know she had captured his affections? Here’s some fun and quite unusual customs from the past that helped pave the wave to romance for our ancestors.

Antique Welsh Love Spoons

Antique Welsh Love Spoons

Carved from the Heart

In Wales, when a young man wanted to court, he carved his special lady a love spoon. Intricate in detail, these love offerings took hours to craft thereby demonstrating his devotion to his intended. If the young woman accepted the spoon, they were considered courting. Although this ritual has faded in modern Wales, love spoons are still given as gifts for weddings, anniversaries and Valentine’s day.

FAN-tastic Flirting

With all their rules about the opposite sex mingling, those stodgy upper-class Victorians made the art of wooing a woman tricky indeed. Since a gentleman was not allowed to speak to a woman to whom he hadn’t been properly introduced, he needed some clue a lady was open to his attention. Thus the language of the fan was born.  When a lady caught a man staring from across the room, her swift moving fan indicated she was unattached while a slow flapping one signaled she was engaged. If she laid the fan against her right cheek, she was available and open to an introduction. However, if the lady rested the fan against her left cheek, the unlucky fellow learned of her disinterest and spared himself an awkward introduction.

Speak Up, I Can’t Hear You

Couple using a courting stick

Couple using a courting stick

In 17th century America, a young man had little opportunity to woo his love in private. How was he to convince the lady he fancied of his unending devotion when in cramped quarters with her father hovering closeby? The answer, the courting trumpet (also know as a whispering stick or courting tube). By placing one end of a hollow wooden tube in her ear while her beau whispered sweet nothings from the other side, the couple ensured their privacy no matter how many listening ears were nearby.

Seal the Deal with Fruit

If you thought a carved wooden spoon was practical, how about a slice of apple? In rural Austria, available young ladies would shove an apple wedge in their armpit during dances. At the conclusion of festivities, she offered it to the lucky young man she most admired. Now if you’re like me you’re already wrinkling your nose. But wait it gets even better. If he returns her affections, he eats the fruit!

If my hubby were required to eat this putrid offering, I can nearly guarantee I’d still be single! While this old-fashioned gal loves to keep old traditions alive, eating the apple wedge is one courting ritual that should stay buried in the past!

Another old-fashioned way lovers kept the romance alive in the not-so-distant past was letter writing. While living on opposite sides of the country, in the dark ages before email and texting, my hubby wooed me the old-fashioned way– hand-written letters. We kept the post office in business, often exchanging 3-5 letters every week. I still have them in a box in my mother’s hope chest at the foot of my bed.

How did your sweetie woo you?

Victorian Valentines

Although the celebration of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to ancient Rome, the trappings of the modern celebration–flowers, chocolates and gifts do not have such ancient lineage. As you troll the card section of your favorite super store agonizing over the perfect selection, you can thank those wonderful Victorians for popularizing the Valentine’s Day card.

Ornate Victorian Valentine circa 1850s

Ornate Victorian Valentine circa 1850s

Original Victorian Valentines were all about the bling, baby!

Victorians designed unique valentines on flat sheets of paper using such diverse embellishments as silk flowers, lace, seashells, ribbons, seeds, bows, and gold and silver foil appliqués. The sheets, when folded and sealed with wax, could be mailed. Some cards, like the one below, were so elaborate they had mechanical levers that made figures dance or bird wings flutter while others had dimensional pop-up features or unfolded like fans to impress their recipient.

However, the cost of postage made sending their undying affections very costly for the average British citizen, as much as a day’s wage for the working class. It wasn’t until the advent of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840 that Valentines flourished and a widespread tradition was born.

front of the card folds down to reveal details of the flowers and birds. Circa 1850s. Photograph by Michael Marx

Elaborate Mechanical Valentine circa 1850s Photograph by Michael Marx

Victorians overwhelmingly favored sending Valentine’s cards over Christmas cards. In fact, so many Valentine’s greetings were posted that letter carriers were given extra pay for the large sacks they hauled and delivered in the days preceding the holiday. The growing trend of sending Valentine’s is referenced in a popular poem of the time, by James Beaton.

The letters in St. Valentine so vastly will amount,
Postmen may judge them by the lot, they won’t have time to count;
They must bring round spades and measures, to poor love-sick souls
Deliver them by bushels, the same as they do coals.

Valentine cards were so fashionable that their production became a thriving business among London’s cheapjack printers. Clichéd verses like “Be Mine” and “Constant and True” were commonly printed inside. Despite their mass-production, commercially produced Valentines still typically featured dried flowers, bird feathers, ribbons and lace.

 

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Vinegar Valentines

But the Victorians didn’t limit their Valentine’s Day felicitations to the objects of their affections. Through the mid-twentieth century, Vinegar Valentine’s were sent anonymously and ridiculed the recipient’s appearance, fashion sense, income or social status. Gender blind, the ill-wishes were as likely to mock a woman’s spinsterhood as a man’s occupation. Unlike their extravagant counterparts, these nasty tidings didn’t feature lavish ornamentation or elaborate trimmings, but rather were printed on very inexpensive paper and featured simple artwork and mean-spirited rhyming verses.

For the modern celebrant, exchanging Valentines is just one way to show your love and devotion to a spouse, sweetheart or infatuation.

What is your favorite Valentine’s tradition?

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