Originally published on Torontoist on February 11, 2015.
The Globe, February 8, 1928.
Valentine’s Day: a time to demonstrate one’s appreciation for others, to profess one’s love, and to write florid verse and purple prose in the name of Cupid. Celebrating love on February 14 (or surrounding days, if it fell on Sunday) has been a long, profitable tradition for Torontonians.
One of the earliest commentaries we found was a Globe editorial published in 1858. The elevated prose that publisher George Brown and his writers used forces modern readers to refer to a dictionary. For example, booksellers offering Valentine’s Day stationery were “bibliopoles,” a term we’re waiting for an enterprising young entrepreneur to use any day now. A sample of the Globe’s thoughts:
Our bibliopoles have right diligently done their part to secure the due celebration of the mysteries pertaining to this time-honoured festival. For weeks have the counters and windows of their marts have been profusely garnished with amatory missives, exhibiting all the canonical adornments peculiar to such documents. Dan Cupid there drives teems of harnessed doves, as he was wont to do when “our auld cloak was new,” and smirking couples wend their way “ankle deep in flowers” towards rural churches climaxed with tiny spires suggestive of toothpicks.
The Globe, February 12, 1931.
By 1862, Toronto’s post office processed 3,500 valentines on February 14. Though rumours suggested sending greetings was passé, stationers reported strong sales, especially among high-end products. “Those of a comic character were sold in large quantities, but the great demand was for those with embossed edges, varying from a quarter to five dollars,” the Globe observed. “The post office was crowded with the fair sex all day; and the smiles on their faces, as they left, showed that their swains had generally done the proper thing.”
During the Victorian era, the degeneration of valentines into cards with grotesque, insensitive jokes was heavily criticized. Cheaper cards replaced sentiment with insults and, the Globe reported in 1889, “the effect upon the unfortunate receiver must be like that of a quart of dishwater thrown from some unseen window.” A valentine sent to a pharmacist might insinuate he was a quack, while a young woman might receive a card inferring she had loose morals. “It is not good even for children to be the carriers of insults the full meaning of which they do not understand.”
The Globe, February 10, 1933.
Sentimentality was back in fashion when the Great Depression hit. As the economy tanked, caring thoughts and tender reassurances written in valentines provided solace. Around 150,000 valentines were distributed by Toronto mail carriers on Valentine’s Day 1930. The Globe glimpsed the feeling around the city that year:
Sweethearts are giving expressions to their affection in generous measure today and they are “saying it” with valentines. Perchance it is but a dainty card or folder, charmingly embellished with lace and cupids and intriguing bits of verse, and again the valentine may take the form of a basket of red roses or heart-shaped boxes of candies. Twilight last evening fell upon a city seething with excitement akin to that one finds on Christmas Eve, with book stores, candy shops, and florists crowded with young men with dreamy eyes, and thoughtful husbands.
Additional material from the February 13, 1858, February 15, 1862, February 14, 1889, and February 14, 1930 editions of the Globe.
Valentine’s Day ’54
Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us, a day of happy lovers and happier chocolate purveyors. Back in 1954, two of the city’s larger candy chains filled the newspapers with ads showing off their sweet suggestions. Beyond wolfing down bonbons, what else could sweethearts do that year?
There was the option of more food. Culinary columnists provided their ideas for suitable meals and treats for lovebirds to make at home, which would have helpful in 1954 as Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday, a day when entertainment options outside the home were limited. The Telegram proposed a full buffet consisting of baked Virginia ham, sweet potato casserole, tossed salad, French bread, cranberry/celery salad, iced relishes, and Cherries Jubilee with ice cream. This spread may have been a plot to fill up diners so much that they wouldn’t be in the mood for any monkey business later on. Margaret Carr of the Toronto Star offered up a strawberry-almond mould loaded with gelatin, ladyfingers, and “frills of whipped cream” that may have stimulated a few lovers. The Globe and Mail determined that a one-bowl orange cake was appropriate, as long as one mixed the batter with six hundred spoon strokes—three hundred before the eggs were added, three hundred after. One stroke too many and both the cake and the romance would be ruined.
If you were unable to come up with a poem to deliver to your Valentine, editorial pages came to the rescue, especially if you were as negligent in delivering your wishes as the protagonist of the Star’s offering, Len G. Selle’s Valentine:
Oh, lovely girl who reads this verse
Think not I am unwise;
I know the softness of your hair
The languer in your eyes.
The laughter of your “rosebud mouth”
And “teeth like pearls”—I guess;
It just remains, my love, for you
To send me your address.
Ah, what a novel scheme this is
To win a Valentine,
To advertise my heart’s desire
At nothing flat a line?
But breathing on my shoulder
Is my last important date…
Alas, this little Valentine
Is twenty years too late!
At the University of Toronto, University College co-eds celebrated by re-enacting Valentine rituals from 1754. These included pinning bay leaves on pillows to ensure any sweethearts dreamed of would be yours within a year, a performance of a play that used creepy masks, and writing names of suitors on slips of paper, rolling them in clay, and dropping them in a jar of water, with the first to float indicating the lucky man.
Modern rituals were the focus of the Telegram’s “Teen Talk” column, where Cynthia Williams offered advice:
Are you trying to woo and win the lady of your choice? Are you trying to get rid of a dope who has been stalking your steps for the past six months? Now’s your chance! Ready-made! But here’s a pointer, boys, if you do want to be popular. The girl, or girls, in your life might not be expecting a card, but believe me, you’ll be number one boy if you remember to send one! And girls, I did get a few of the boys to admit that they were kind of flattered if they got cards, even unsigned ones, that piqued their curiosity!
No mention was made of what a small gift of chocolates could do.
Additional material from the February 11, 1954 and February 12, 1954 editions of the Globe and Mail, the February 13, 1954 edition of the Telegram, and the February 9, 1954 and February 13, 1954 editions of the Toronto Star.
Two of the recipes mentioned in this story…
Toronto Star, February 9, 1954.
Globe and Mail, February 12, 1954.