I ♥ You: Valentine’s Lessons from Way Back

I ♥ You: Valentine’s Lessons from Way Back

I like Valentine’s Day. Its initials give me pause for thought sometimes — perhaps they are so appropriate as to be off-putting (‘V.D.’ anyone?) — but overall it strikes me as a formalized excuse to show the people you care about that you love them. Last year, I even wrote up a little piece urging us to broaden our definitions of relationships to include the bromance in the Valentine’s festivities! So, when I say that I want your Valentine’s Day plans to be a success, I really do mean it.

In an era of grandiose gestures of love necessarily plastered all over social media, however, I worry that we run the risk of overlooking one of the smaller, but certainly not insignificant, components of our Valentine’s Day experience: the humble card.

Although cards are consistently one of, if not the, most popular Valentine’s Day gifts (check out these stats from 2013), I thought it might be fun to have a look back at some nineteenth-century Valentine’s Day faux pas. These missives theoretically provide us with an opportunity to tell those closest to us how much we care about them in elegant and soaring prose, but we sometimes still miss the mark. With some luck, these four quick tips about what not to do this coming Valentine’s Day might help you avoid a broken heart or, worse yet, an embarrassing viral video or meme.

Cards and letters were central to the celebration of Valentine’s Day in nineteenth-century America. Chicago post offices were “flood[ed]” with Valentine’s Day letters in 1880, for example. Estimates placed the volume of mail at “not less than 100,000” valentines. Even more telling was the average distance covered by the postal workers on their routes. Ordinarily, they would trek some “seventeen and two-thirds miles,” however, this February 14 saw “the numbers of letters carried by each” postie increase so dramatically “that the additional stoppages would increase the distance at least ten miles.”

It is from these hundreds of thousands of letters that I’ve extracted some key pieces of advice that I think will ensure your Valentine’s Day runs as smoothly as it possibly can.

Lesson One: Avoid being too mysterious. One “sly dog” was so keen to ensure that “his handwriting should not give him away” that he “wrote both the name and the address on the envelope backwards.” Unsurprisingly, “even with the aid of a lookingglass [sic] it was impossible to make out more than the front name of the young lady,” and the letter remained undelivered.


A little mystery is sexy, absolutely, and having a secret admirer can be hot. But unless you’re Batman there’s not really any need to go to such lengths that your valentine will never be able to identify who you are, if they receive your correspondence at all. Worse, an anonymous letter or package that never arrives at its destination will mean you’ll have to wait a whole year before you can have another crack at reeling in your new love!

Lesson Two: Be nice to your mail carriers. They hold a surprising amount of power over who receives your declaration of love. A smart lad realized this and wrote on the card he had mailed to his sweetheart: “Mr. Carrier, you don’t want to give this to no one but the party addressed. Don’t give the old woman it by no means.”

Lesson Three: Spelling matters. The love of your life may well enjoy sweet nothings whispered in their ear, but they may appreciate your sweet writings less if an errant letter leaves them your ‘angle’ rather than your ‘angel’. Miss Caty O’Strike received just such a letter from her charming beau that was no doubt intended to win her over:

Miss Caty, the rose is read

the wilut is blew

hunney is sweat

an so are u from J.S. Yure owen Valentin


We will probably never know what Caty thought about this poem, but I think we can safely assume it wasn’t a winner. Instead of the sweetest, Miss Caty became the sweatiest girl in town.

For those of you who are determined to go big or go home, my advice be damned, Lesson Four is for you: Don’t think too far outside the box.

Cards are drilled into us as appropriate expressions of our affection, and for this they can seem a little banal. One admirer of a girl from Troy, Michigan, decided to up his game. A few years before Miss Caty was meant to receive her sweaty valentine, in February 1875, this young lady would find herself in possession of a box. Wanting to remain anonymous, at least for the time being, the sender gave no details away about himself or what was in the package.

Imagine the girl’s surprise, then, when she opened the box to find a “beef’s heart pierced with a golden arrow of elegant manufacture.” And “set with jewels,” no less. It looked like the golden arrow that had pierced this heart was “intended to be used either as a neck pin or as an ornament for the hair.” This was no pasta necklace glammed up with some sparkles or cubic zirconia either. The sucker was worth seventy-five dollars! Using this wonderful calculator, we can see that it would probably be about the same as receiving a gift in the mail worth something in the realm of $1,500 today.

Certainly, the man who sent this gift exhibited “a strange taste in sending such a remarkable valentine,” but the reporter did not seem overly concerned with the welfare or well-being of the lady on the receiving end. Though misguided, it seems just to have been an extreme attempt on behalf of the sender to convey his love-sickness for this girl.

What happened to the man I don’t know, but it seems unlikely he got his valentine in the end. While the young lady kept the (very expensive) hair pin and her poodle received the heart for dinner that evening, it does not seem to be a winning strategy. Dateless and down $1,500 — this should serve as a warning to all would-be suitors.

With this Valentine’s Day advice in mind, then, go forth and shower your loved ones with gifts and attention. Just remember to pay attention to the finer details: you’ll need to identify yourself to your valentine at some point if you haven’t already; be nice to your mail carrier lest your letter be “accidentally” delivered to a house you had not intended; get a friend to proofread to avoid swapping ‘sweetie’ for ‘sweaty;’ and finally, memorable does not always mean successful.

We’d love to hear about some of your weirder and wilder gifts, too, so feel free to get in touch on Twitter or leave us a comment below! How do they compare to an impaled beef heart?


Title Image:     Cover image from Flickr Commons , “E. River” (

References:      The stories themselves and all relevant quotes in the article have been taken from: “A Remarkable Valentine,” New York Times, 18 February 1875, p. 2; “Miscellaneous Feminine Items,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 28 February 1875, p. 11; “St. Valentine,” Chicago Daily

Tribune, 15 February 1880, p. 7.

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Sean Cosgrove's research areas lie at the intersection of histories of medicine, science and technology, gender, and popular culture primarily in the late nineteenth century, united by an interest in the experiences of, and ideas surrounding, the human body. He is also committed to public engagement and actively interested in fostering greater inclusivity in higher education. He has previously conducted research focusing on patients, hermaphroditism, and sexual violence and criminality in the nineteenth century, but has also worked on projects outside of academia.