I Live Or Die Thy Valentine! or, Love In the Time of War

Of all the things that made a Civil War soldier’s life miserable, being separated from his sweetheart had to rate right up there.  Love is difficult enough when everything goes right.  Trying to carry on a courtship or maintain a marriage in the middle of a war is almost impossible to imagine.  Yet, it happened, and Valentine cards helped.

Ether Howland Valentine.

Valentine’s Day is the quintessential Victorian holiday.  By 1837, England was awash in lace, cutouts (called “scrap’), cupids, doves, hearts, painted roses, ribbons,  net and satin on February 14.  It only cost a penny to mail one of these romantic extravaganzas in Great Britain, but many paid the extra shilling or so to mail them to America.

The United States was eager to participate in spreading the love, and even more designs became available.  Collaged cutouts, pinpricked designs and sayings, envelopes with hearts contained within, lockets and locks of hair, anagrams, puzzle purses, and even “checks” to be drawn on the “Bank of Love” found their various ways around the country, North and South.

During the Civil War, soldiers who were near a large city often had the opportunity to purchase a commercial Valentine, but most made do with hand made versions.  Often the heart was split into two parts, signifying the pain of separation.  In a few documented cases, only half the heart was sent.  It would become whole again when the soldier returned, bearing the missing piece.

One popular store-bought card was a version of the “window” Valentine.  In peacetime, the doors of a church opened to reveal a smiling wedding couple, but during the War, the window became the flaps on a soldier’s tent.  When the flaps were opened, they revealed the lonely man inside, writing to his sweetheart, who was often portrayed as a dream image in his imagination.

Many small pieces of white cotton and linen were embroidered with hearts and blue forget-me-nots, and sent from home to men away in camp.  White paper lace was popular as well, along with preprinted, romantic, poetic declarations of love.

Novelty Valentines were also popular.  Puzzle Purses were square envelopes with all four flaps folded one inside the other.  Each flap was doubled over and decorated or written upon, often using both sides.  When the lucky lover received a Puzzle Purse, the trick was not only to open it in the correct order, but to refold it correctly as well.

Miss Esther Howland, an enterprising woman from Massachusetts, is considered to be the “Mother of the American Valentine.”  About ten years before the Civil War began, Esther received an intricate English Valentine from an admirer.    No one knows what became of the admirer, but Esther was quite taken with the card.  She decided that she could make ones even more lovely to sell in her father’s paper goods store, the largest one in Worchester, Massachusetts. She persuaded her father to order fancy papers from England, and when they arrived, she set about creating beautiful cards for February 14.  They sold out completely in a few days, inspiring her father to order a lot more supplies for his daughter’s fledgling business.

By the next year her brother, who traveled in his horse-drawn wagon selling goods and taking orders for his father’s stationary store, asked if he could take along some of Esther’s Valentines as samples.  Her brother returned with over $5,000 dollars worth of orders for the cards.  Applying true Yankee ingenuity, Miss Howland hired several women and set up a “factory of Valentines,” to keep up with the orders.  Howland Valentines were produced throughout the Civil War to lovesick Yankees and blockade-running Rebels  alike.

Whether from sweethearts, wives, mothers or sisters, separation was one of the most painful aspects of the American Civil War.  Enjoy these images, and think of the men and women who shared them.

My Love

‘Mid bugle’s blast and cannon’s roar,

And ‘mid the battles’ angry flame;

‘Mid clashing sabres red with gore,

I fondly breathe thy much-loved name.

I feel thee near at dead of night,

When I my vigil lone am keeping–

Thy image guards me, angel bright,

In dreams when wearied I am sleeping,

Each northward wind wafts on its breath,

To thee a yearning kiss of mine–

On glory’s field or bed of death.

I live or die thy Valentine.

About Meg Thompson

CW Historian
This entry was posted in Civilian, Common Soldier and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to I Live Or Die Thy Valentine! or, Love In the Time of War

  1. bellegroveatportconway says:

    Great Post! My husband was in the Navy for 21 years and served several years on a submarine. While I know its not a war, the time apart was just as hard. To this day, I still have the cards and letters we sent. That is one thing that I think people are going to miss out on with just sending emails. Hard to cherish an email compared to that one hand written letter. Thanks for a great Valentine’s Day post! Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

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