A Short History of the Really Bad Valentine Missive

by Stassa Edwards

If we’re to believe the American people, “Tweet Me” is one of the most romantic utterances of our era. That was one of the many expressions chosen by Sweethearts manufacturer NECCO after their 2010 crowd-sourced competition for new romantic missives that were then featured on their ubiquitous Valentine’s candies. Other sweet nothings candy eaters chose included: “Text Me” and “You Rock.” They joined the even more swoon-worthy “Email Me” and “URA QT” already in circulation.

If conversation hearts are any indication of our capacity for romantic sentimentality, then we are a decidedly unsentimental bunch. But it’s not our fault: Valentine’s Day itself is probably to blame. Before the 1840s, Americans were largely free from the shackles of Valentine’s Day’s tyrannical romance. February was reserved for celebrating the birth of possibly the least romantic person on earth: George Washington.

But by the mid-nineteenth century, pesky American book publishers were sick of the Washington, and saw a chance to make some extra cash by importing the holiday from across the pond. Our far more sentimental British friends had been celebrating a friskier version of Valentine’s Day since the Dark Ages. Brits drew lots and exchanged handwritten poems or notes, often filled “with Scandal, and sometimes Ruin!” according to one 17th century observer.

American book publishers wanted the cash windfall that might come with Valentine’s Day, but they didn’t want to lose the Revolution all over again. So they ushered in Valentine’s Day for Americans and away went spontaneous professions of love or self-revelation. Americans, they wisely devised, were bad at both poetry and feelings. In its place, we were given respectable romantic utterances, free of scandal and ruin and ready for mass consumption.

Before the readymade Hallmark card or the cloying demands of conversation hearts, book publishers began printing valentine’s chapbooks: cheaply printed books of bad poetry printed for those who lacked the wherewithal to conjure up their own poetic passion — a kind of pocket-sized Cyrano de Bergerac sans the nose or burning desire. The introduction of the valentine chapbook signified the beginning of the end: its mass publication killed spontaneous romance and poetry, offering those carcasses to the altar questionable taste.

Publishers made grand claims for their chapbooks full of rhyming missives, promising that their mawkish poetry could produce romantic sparks in even the most “intractable of spinsters” or the proudest of old maids. Bad poetry, it seemed, could move the hardened hearts of the worst kinds of women. With titles like Sentimental Valentine Writer for Both Sexes and The Beauties of Hymen; or, A New Valentine Writer for the Present Year, Being a Choice Collection of Original Valentines, Sentimental and Pleasing; Written Expressly for This Work, these chapbooks are filled with some really bad poetry ready to be copied and passed off as an original creation.

What kind of poetry could hum the heartstrings of cynical women? According to Sentimental Valentine Writer for Both Sexes (1845), chaste dreams and entwined hearts could move your lady:

Oh! Come my love, my own delight,

My joy by day, my dream by night,

And both our hearts shall close entwine,

A blessing from St. Valentine.

If your Cupid’s mark was someone too interesting for generic verse, then you could write your special someone a personalized bad poem. The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s New and Original Valentine Writer (1856), included missives “capable of a great number of modifications, alterations, and amendments, which might give it a personal character.” The anonymous writer suggests the following:

And offer unto thee my love,

may be written,

And offer sweetest Nell my love,

or, —

And offer Adaline my love,

or, —

And offer Mary all my love.

Personal character, indeed.

As cynical as this approach might be, knowing and correctly spelling a woman’s name is probably pertinent to the personalized (and successful!) wooing experience. The same writer also implored his little Cyranos to, “See to it that your ‘Love Knot’ does not lose its distinctive character — its highest charm — and become love not.”

But if writing an actual name was too hard, one could simply peruse a chapbook and match sentiment to person. Scholar Leigh Eric Schmidt unearthed a dog-eared copy of Strong’s Universal Valentine Writer (no date) in the Smithsonian’s collection. The original owner annotated one poetic passage with the names of both Angelia Miller and Caroline Crawford:

Doubt not — believe each word you see,

And treasure up each sacred line, —

Deep from my heart they come to thee,

Then oh! be thou my Valentine.

Poor Angelia Miller and Caroline Crawford, reduced to a note in a margin, and remembered only for their similarly bad taste in poetry and men.

•••By the early 20th century, Americans had had enough of passing off poetry as their own, their hands weary from copying bad missives, and valentine chapbooks fell out of fashion.

By the 1920s, chapbooks were replaced by the more familiar greeting card. Originally called the “mechanized valentine,” the greeting card stripped the last bit of handmade romanticism from the holiday. Its original name says it all — mechanized valentine — it’s about as unromantic as George Washington.

It was around this time, too, that confectioners began producing heart-shaped boxes and candy, reducing the sentiment of the 19th century’s bad poetry into shorter, more familiar missives like “Be Mine” and the simple “Happy Valentine’s.” Then NECCO introduced conversation hearts and Valentine’s gifts were as likely to be from your mother or an elementary school classmate as they were from a handsome suitor.

It’s no surprise then that Americans can today only envision “Tweet Me” or “Email Me” as the grandest expression of romantic passion. With Valentine’s Day’s deep ties to easily manufactured romantic sentiment, real feelings made of words (or worse, poetry!) seem uncomfortable. It’s no wonder then that the Poet Laureate of All Women, Taylor Swift, recently proclaimed voicemail to be the most epic expression of modern passion.

Poetry is hard, after all. We’re not all Elizabeth Barrett Browning — and she was British, anyway.

Stassa Edwards is a freelance writer and PhD candidate living in the Deep South. For more of her misguided opinions, you can follow her on Twitter.