Valentine’s Day in Colonial America

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

We probably would not recognize some of the odd Valentine’s Day celebrations practiced by our Colonial ancestors, but the romantic notion of a day set aside for love was definitely part of early Americana.  But not all of the colonies celebrated the holiday. 

The austere Protestant religion practiced in many of the New England colonies disapproved of celebrations they deemed unscriptural.

Naturally, they did not encourage the celebration of a day celebrating temporal love.

But many of the European immigrants, especially the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (later known as New York) and the British colonists in Virginia and the southern colonies, carried Saint Valentine’s Day with them. 

Some believe that vestiges of the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, combined with the reverence for Saint Valentine, the Catholic patron saint of love, to create Saint Valentine’s Day.

In the ancient world, Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15 throughout the Roman Empire.

It eventually gave way to Christianization, being supplanted by the legend of a Roman Catholic priest who is said to have lived in Rome during the reign of Claudius II.

On February 14, in the year 270 A.D., legend has it that Valentine was executed by the cruel emperor, Claudius.

Rome was finding it difficult to maintain an army during the reign of Claudius II and he believed it was because Roman men were reluctant to leave their wives and families, so he banned all marriages and engagements.

Valentine defied Claudius, continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret, paid for his disobedience with his life, and was later beatified by the church.

As legend has it, grateful lovers brought gifts of cards and flowers to the prisoner while he was in his jail cell – creating the first “Valentines.” 

As they always have and always will – young people feel the need to express their romantic desires and like to get together for a party. 

It was no different in the New World. 

On February 14, young colonials would write romantic poetry and get together for festivities which often included pretending to partner up. The games began with young ladies of marriageable age writing their names on pieces of paper, which were then placed in a basket. 

The young men would take turns choosing a paper from the basket. 

Or the names of suitors might be written on paper which was rolled in clay and submerged in a vessel of water.

Whichever name rose to the surface first, would be the chosen valentine of the lady who retrieved it. 

The two would be partners for the remainder of the party. Often these pairings would last for just the evening, but sometimes the couple would keep company for the entire spring and summer season.

And sometimes the Valentine’s Day pair would marry.

In the Dutch colonies in the1600s and early 1700s, it was widely held that on the morning of Saint Valentine’s Day, the first man a woman would set eyes on, or vice versa, should be that gentleman’s or lady’s intend-ed, and accompany her throughout the day. 

In many cases, this “chance meeting” may well have been orchestrated. 

In fact, there are old family accounts of daughters being told by their families to keep her eyes closed on a Saint Valentine’s morning until being told to open them. 

What a convenient tradition for parents who wanted to have a hand in the choosing of a husband for their daughters.

Another popular colonial Saint Valentine’s tradition involved bay leaves, which come from the Laurus nobilis- a tree native to the Mediterranean. 

Why bay leaves?

The noble history of the tree may have had something to do with it. The fragrant leaves of the Laurus nobilis were esteemed as medicine by many cultures, and they were said to impart an aura of power.

Many references to the tree can be found in Greek, Roman and biblical texts.

Laurus is Latin for “victory, triumph, success.” 

It’s the root of baccalaureate, poet laureate and is found in the expression, “resting on one’s laurels.” 

Nobilis is Latin for “noble; famous; excellent.” 

Ancient Greeks wove Laurel nobilis branches into wreaths as crowns for champions and heroes. 

One of the common names for the tree is Bay Laurel.

Its branches were strewn on the floors of great English houses and castles during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. 

Early colonists carried the venerated Bay Laurel seeds to North America where the trees eventually flourished in many colonial gardens.

It was commonly believed that a young woman, wishing to ascertain her likelihood of imminent marriage, should pin five bay leaves to her pillow on Saint Valentine’s eve – one at each corner and one in the middle. 

If she dreamed of her sweetheart, they would be married within the year.

Colonial Americans had lots of other Saint Valentine’s “love spells” up their sleeves.

On Saint Valentine’s eve, maidens might visit the churchyard at midnight and walk around the church, scattering hemp seed, all the while repeatedly chanting this poem: “I sow hemp seed, hemp seed I sow. He that loves me best, come after me and mow.”

During the Colonial Period, there were no printed “valentines” as we know them today, but there are a few examples of hand-made valentines having been sent in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1768, the Virginia Gazette, published in Williamsburg, Virginia, featured a “lovers literary campaign,” in which were featured a special type of Valentine’s poetry that was all the rage at the time.

These were acrostic poems- meaning poems where the first letter of each line spelled out a word or a message.

One such poem was penned by a young gentleman by the name of David Mead, of Nansemond County.

He wrote this poem for a Miss Sally Waters, of Williamsburg.

It was printed in the Virginia Gazette on February 18, 1768:   

“Most praise the gaudy tulips streak’d with red. 
I praise the virgin lilly’s bending head: 
Some the jonquil in shining yellow drest; 
Some love the fring’d carnation’s varied vest;
Whilst others, pleas’d that fabled youth to trace, 
As o’er the stream he bends to view his face.  
The exulting florist views their varied dyes; 
E’n thus fares beauty in each lover’s eyes. 
Read o’er these lines, you’ll see the nymph with ease, 
She like the rose was made, all eyes to please.”
Mr. Mead’s valentine must have been to Miss Waters’ liking. 
Three months later, on May 19, the Virginia Gazette announced: “On Thursday last, David Mead, Esq., of Nansemond, was married to Miss Sally Waters, of this city, an agreeable young Lady.” 

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