Cincinnati Ladies Used to Dread the “Comic” Valentine

Funny, serious, cruel, sad, dangerous, and pre-packaged Valentine’s Day greetings were big news more than 100 years ago.

Mrs. Cecil Cramer of Cincinnati was having an unhappy Valentine’s Day on February 14, 1908. She was newly divorced from her husband on grounds of failure to provide for her and their child. The postman arrived that day spouting effusive apologies. Because the address and postage were correct, he was obliged to deliver to her an offensive “valentine” from her ex-husband in the form of a plump, juicy, sarcastic lemon.

Fresh citrus was an uncommon medium for correspondence back then, but sarcasm was abundant. In 1908, every woman dreaded the prospect of receiving a “comic” valentine.

Even little boys dreaded the arrival of a sarcastic “comic” valentine. Young women refused to admit they ever received a “comic.”

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The postal deliveries on Valentine’s Day fell into two categories. There were the amorous expressions of affection and desire, adorned with much lace and hearts, usually surrounded by little birds or flowers. And then there were the “comics,” humorous cards ranging from modest gibes to full-blown insults. So humiliating were these supposedly funny valentines that young ladies refused to admit they ever received one.

Before the Civil War, The Cincinnati Press [February 14, 1860] bemoaned the “degenerate” fad of sending insulting valentines. According to that newspaper, valentines were intended to be chosen randomly, drawn like lots, and not mailed. Young people traditionally gathered on Valentine’s Day, and each wrote a little love note, rolled it up, and dropped it in one of two bowls—one for men and one for women. Each man drew a note from the women’s bowl, and each woman drew a note from the men’s bowl.

“By this means, each had two valentines; but the man stuck faster to the valentine that had fallen to him, than the valentine to whom he had fallen. Fortune wrought serious results from this sport, through balls and treats to the ladies adored and wearing their billets on sleeves and bosoms for days, for that mostly ended in love and marriage which was begun in sport.”

Despite groans of disapproval, the “comic” valentines endured, even in wartime. The McMullen Company on Walnut Street downtown advertised in 1862 an “Army Valentine Package” containing one “superb” valentine, one “elegant” valentine, three “military comic” valentines, and three “beautiful” valentines for a total of 50 cents. That’s about $13 in today’s currency.

By the 20th century, photography had become affordable enough that young women created photographic valentines, showing themselves in a “pretty pose” with paper cupids, hearts, or birds as props. The Cincinnati Post [March 7, 1902) reproduced a photographic valentine distributed by Miss Kathleen Walsh of Southern Avenue in Mt. Auburn.

Romance kept pace with technology in the 20th century. This illustration dominated an advertisement from the Pathe Corporation, promoting the sale of recorded love songs as effective valentines.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

One hundred years ago, The Post [8 February 8, 1921] introduced “Carmine Kisses for Valentines,” advising young women to rouge their lips and kiss a white card, adding a drop of perfume and a brief note before mailing it to their intended. There were plenty of opportunities to respond to valentines as well. In those days, many parts of Cincinnati received four visits from the postman every day.

Fortunetelling is as much a part of Valentine’s Day lore as are hearts and flowers. The Cincinnati Enquirer [February 14, 1909] reported that it was once customary for maidens wishing to learn their heart’s desire to run around the local churchyard at midnight, chanting:

“I sow hempseed, hempseed I sow /
He that loves me best /
Come after me now.”

Having made the circuit a dozen times, she should quickly turn around and would see—if she hadn’t fallen faint from exhaustion—the ghostly image of her true love, following her as she ran.

For those less athletically inclined, The Post [February 7, 1917] suggested employing two identical bayberry candles to divine a young lady’s marital prospects.

“If a pair of candles is named, one after the girl and one after the man, and if they burn evenly, the pair is sure to wed and to live happily ever afterward. But if one goes out or one burns faster than the other, it augurs ill for the match.”

That valentines are a custom dating far into Cincinnati’s past is documented by Gertrude Coleman of Walnut Hills, who showed The Post [February 8, 1911] a 60-year-old valentine passed down from her aunt. The aunt had introduced a friend to a young man of her acquaintance in suburban Cincinnati, and he became smitten. When Valentine’s Day rolled around, he purchased an elaborate and expensive card and prepared to send it to his lady love. Postmen being few at that time, he rode 25 miles to deliver it himself, but was thrown from his horse and knocked unconscious. He was found by Miss Coleman’s aunt, who notified her friend.

“When she went to him she found the valentine addressed to her, and understood. Of course, they were married, and in later years she gave the valentine to her friend, Miss Coleman’s aunt, in whose home her romance had its beginning.”

Not all Valentine tales ended happily. The Post [February 14, 1908] reported the sad situation of Ong Foo Sin, a cook in one of Cincinnati’s Chinese restaurants. When he’d emigrated from China, he left behind a woman and asked her to wait for him.

“When Ong had enough money saved and was about to send for his little girl he got a letter telling him that her father had made her marry a rich man in her home town. Every Valentine’s Day he buys a pretty little valentine and sends it to the girl he still loves, but who can never be his.”

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