The Gilt Is Gone : Valentines: Time Alters Their Tenor

Once upon a time, long before love became something to be worked out , M. P. B. could unabashedly send Mr. Wm. P. Budgood a valentine poem that began:

"May all thy life be passed amid Earth's fairest buds and flowers. . . ."

M. P. B.'s sentimental missive, postmarked Feb. 14, 1896, is one of a number of Victorian valentines on display this month, Sunday afternoons from 2 to 4, at the Heritage House in the Fullerton Arboretum.

The valentines have been casually arranged throughout the restored 1894 home of Fullerton's pioneer physician, George C. Clark. In their dim floral surroundings, the valentines evoke an old-time aura of lace and suggestion, of gilt and innocence.

From sweethearts, relatives and friends, the valentines are flamboyantly embossed, padded with satin or folded so that the hearts pop out. Their envelopes, too, tell of a time long past, when young men were addressed as "Master," when letters could be sent with one-cent stamps, and when "City" was a sufficient address.

The messages are as simple as "My heart is thine," "For ever yours" and "With affection and regard." Or as elaborate as the thin booklets of verse, such as "The Old Old Story of Love Yet Ever New." The poem describes how St. Valentine reunites a shepherd lad and a maiden by tossing her a dewy violet the lad had kissed. St. Valentine counsels them: "Be true, young hearts, for true love's worth far more than land or gold!"

Today, the advice might be: "Be assertive, for you only go around once in life!"

Back then, the watchword was subtlety. Women could send scores of messages simply by the way they held their fans. And in a valentine, an additional message could be conveyed through the so-called "language of flowers."

"Each flower had a special meaning, such as how faithful you'd be or how pure you think your sweetheart is," said Kathy Frazee, Heritage House coordinator. Blue violets were for faithfulness, white lilies for purity and modesty, pomegranate flowers for mature elegance. In general, roses meant love. But a yellow rose meant jealousy, a thornless rose signified early attachment and a full-blown rose placed over two buds meant secrecy.

Flirtation was the best part of romance back then, said Frazee, adding that the lack of candid sex education sometimes made for "horrendous stories of wedding nights."

The valentines are from the collection of Pat Lindgren of Anaheim, a member of the Friends of the Fullerton Arboretum.

Most of the fancy Victorian valentines are "more or less" marriage proposals, according to Evalene Pulati of Santa Ana, founder of the National Valentine Collector's Assn. But not all are loving. She recalls an original valentine verse from a woman who concluded: "I'm odd too, but not as odd as you, and so, I'm bidding you adieu."

Valentine's Day arose from the coincidence of an ancient Roman celebration held in mid-February to honor Pan, the god of shepherds, and Juno, the goddess of marriage, with the date of the death of St. Valentine, a Christian martyr. In the festivities, men would draw women's names from a box, and the two would be sweethearts for a day.

Later, it became customary for men to give a present to the first woman who said, "Good morrow, 'tis Valentine's Day" on Feb. 14. The custom of sending valentine messages began in the 15th Century, with handmade cards and original verses. By the 18th Century, books of suggested poems (such as "Ladies Polite Valentine Writer") were available to help the less articulate lovers.

The Heritage House exhibit shows mostly the manufactured valentines, which took over in the 19th Century. Some senders, however, still cut and pasted pictures, lace and verses to convey their special messages.

One, from Morris to Freddie, has a picture of a bulldog in a red hat, surrounded by yellow roses and blue violets, under the scripted word, "Hope." Inside is a verse, titled "Constancy":

It is the beauty of the mind-- The gems of truth and virtue pure--

Mildness and grace--affection kind, That waken love that will endure."

An accompanying picture shows a frog on a lily pad. Perhaps Freddie understood.

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