WASHINGTON – Roses, cards, chocolates, romantic dinners: Some people look forward to Valentine’s Day, but others complain it has become overly commercialized and places expectations on couples to spend too much money.
But a quick survey of local news clippings from the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post in 1910 shows that Valentine’s Day has been a major commercial event for at least a century. Cards, flowers, gifts and parties were as popular 100 years ago as they are now.
About 190 million Valentine’s Day cards will be exchanged in the U.S. this year, or 1 billion counting classroom card exchanges, according to the Greeting Card Association.
Cards then as well as now give people a chance to express their feelings, like Renee Clyburn of Silver Spring, shopping at her neighborhood Target.
“I look very closely for exactly what I want to say… for a card that says it better than I can say it,” Clyburn said.
In 1910, the Post reported half a million pieces of mail handled in the District during Valentine’s Day weekend, requiring 30 additional clerks to help. The Sun reported a 25 percent increase in Valentines from 1909, also requiring additional clerks and mail carriers.
U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Yvette Singh said that the main post office in Baltimore processed 339,000 pieces of mail in 2009. The Loveville post office in southern Maryland — a popular location for sending Valentines — processes more than 100 extra pieces of mail a day in early February, said USPS spokeswoman Sharon Tennison.
Browsing the shelves today, Maryland shoppers notice a dozen card categories — romantic, inspirational, humorous — as well as cards with sound, fur, googly eyes and moving pieces.
These novelty cards are nothing new: a Sun column from Valentine’s Day in 1910 noted that “odd Valentines” were becoming popular. A Post writer noticed a humorous card that came with a brass watch and the message, “You are about as slow as this!” Another card with a fake wedding ring attached cost 10 cents, or about $2.40 in today’s dollars.
One difference in 2010 is the rising popularity of e-cards; the Greeting Card Association estimates 15 million electronic Valentine cards will be sent this year. Major card companies like Hallmark also offer cell phone messages, and American Greetings is hosting a Twitter contest for shoppers to submit the most creative romantic sentiments.
Giving flowers to a sweetheart was popular then and now, but the types of blooms associated with the holiday have changed.
Today, roses are most strongly associated with romantic feelings, but they were nowhere to be found in Valentine’s Day florist ads or stories from a century ago. Instead, the most popular choice was violets, followed by tulips, bleeding hearts and sweet peas. A bunch of 100 violets went for $1.50, or about $36 dollars today.
Phil Caruso of Rockville, who has been a florist for 64 years, said he remembers when violets were still sold for Valentine’s Day, but that they were hard to grow and bundle. “Nowadays…men know roses,” Caruso said, adding, “but everyone has their own idea of what to give.”
The family business, Caruso Florist on M Street in the District, makes 600 to 700 deliveries on Valentine’s Day to customers in Maryland, Virginia and the District, requiring 25 to 30 trucks.
Another Maryland florist, Kathi Dulin of Easton, said that after roses, the most popular flowers are tulips, carnations and mixed bouquets at her shop, Harrison’s Flowers Inc. in Easton.
“Tulips have had a comeback in the last couple years,” Dulin said, but noted that roses are still the go-to for many customers. “It’s a guy’s holiday and they’re always so last minute. It’s still the traditional dozen red roses.”
As for other gifts, a National Retail Federation survey estimates people will spend an average of $63.34 on their significant others this year. A 1910 advertisement from the Stieff Co. Silversmiths in Baltimore promoted a heart-shaped pin tray for $2, which would be almost $50 today. Other 1910 articles mention Valentine-themed knick-knacks and books for sale, or give instructions for throwing a Valentine-themed party.
Loyola professor Mark Osteen, of Baltimore, says there are certain gifts people tend to give on Valentine’s Day, and the most important factor is “to make sure your idea of the relationship and the recipient’s idea of the relationship is the same,” because the wrong gift could wreck a relationship.
For example, a gift of money could be seen as cold, Osteen said. In contrast, Caruso said that flowers are enduringly popular because they are beautiful and perishable — like people.
Another modern Valentine staple, romantic comedies on the silver screen, may not have existed a century ago, but sappy Valentine tales in print promised happily-ever-after endings for women.
The Sun ran a fictional story about a 29-year-old single secretary, left alone to babysit her niece on Valentine’s Day. But her crush shows up with flowers, a card, and a marriage proposal, so she is rescued from spinsterhood and a boring evening.
And finally, cynicism about Valentine’s Day appears to be at least 100 years old: one Sun columnist wrote in 1910 — tongue-in-cheek — that while some people harbored ill feelings about the holiday, such pessimism was not to be found in Baltimore.