Sunday, February 13, 2011

St. Valentine's Day

New York City, 

Valentine’s Day was wildly popular in the late nineteenth century, reflecting the values of a society that prized ceremony and ritual in its social forms. Traditionally celebrated on Saint Valentine’s Day, even though none of the martyred saints named Valentine seem to have had any connection to romantic love, the holiday somehow acquired its amorous meaning during the Middle Ages.1 By the early nineteenth century, couples began to consider romantic love a prerequisite for marriage, setting the stage for a broad-based revival of the tradition. Revitalized again in the late 1840s with the introduction of mass-produced greeting cards, the amative feast day increasingly came into vogue after the Civil War. By the early 1880s, it was ripe for additional commercial opportunities, going beyond the usual candy, flowers, and cards.

St. Nicholas Dining Room (ca. 1882)
At about this time, having lost most of their permanent residents to the recently-constructed apartment buildings, the hotels in New York were looking for ways to attract people back into their establishments. One idea was to host a theme dinner celebrating Valentine’s Day, as illustrated by this menu from the St. Nicholas Hotel, dated February 14, 1882. The hotel was not going so far as to suggest that its patrons have a romantic dinner in public, for this would have been unthinkable, especially for an unmarried couple.2 This celebratory dinner was conducted well within the prevailing customs and mores of the Victorian period. Nevertheless, even with such societal constraints, the holiday was more popular than ever. In fact, the post office reported that they were busy delivering valentines cards until 11:30 that night, well past their normal 6:30 quitting time, despite having put extra carriers on duty.3 In keeping with the craze, the St. Nicholas had its menu printed on a large Valentine card produced by De La Rue and Co., a British firm more renowned for making postage stamps and banknotes. The culinary wordsmith who named a dish “Potatoes à la Santa Claus” on their Christmas menu a few weeks earlier, rose to the occasion once again, this time christening a cake “Gâteaux à la Valentine.”

The festive dinners were not enough to save the St. Nicholas, which closed its doors two years later. For many of its thirty-one years, the hotel was at the center of the city’s social life, a place where innumerable romances were kindled, including a love story that began there on New Year’s Eve in 1867 when Mark Twain was back in town for the first time in many years. Twain had worked in New York as a printer’s assistant in 1853, the same year that the St. Nicholas opened on Broadway, twelve blocks up from his boarding house on Duane Street. Only seventeen at the time, he hardly could have imagined that one day he would meet his future wife in the lavish interiors of the luxury hotel. In his Autobiography, Twain recounted what happened:

“I called at the St. Nicholas Hotel to see my Quaker City shipmate, Charley Langdon, and was introduced to a sweet and timid and lovely young girl, his sister. The family went to the Dickens reading and I accompanied them. It was 40 years ago; from that day to this the sister has never been out of my mind nor heart.”4

1. Saint Valentine (or Saint Valentinus) refers to one of at least three martyred saints of Ancient Rome. The feast of Saint Valentine was formerly celebrated on February 14 by the Roman Catholic Church until 1969.
2. An elaborate system of rules governing courting emerged after the Civil War. On a woman’s invitation, men conducted formal calls to her home, during which couples might converse, read aloud, or play parlor games. Parents provided privacy, often removing themselves from the parlor, trusting that genteel standards of propriety would guide behavior. Toward the end of the century, new opportunities for interacting outside the home emerged as college enrollments rose and more women entered the workforce. New public diversions in urban areas such as amusement parks, theaters, and restaurants eventually enticed courting couples away from the safety of their parlors. Paul Boyer, The Oxford Companion to United States History, 2001.
3. New York Times, 15 February 1882.
4. Charles Dickens gave a reading from his new novel David Copperfield at Steinway Hall on 14th Street at 8:00 P.M. on December 31, 1867. The next day Twain called on Olivia Langdon at the St. Nicholas, where she was staying with her family. The first of thirty-four New Year’s Day calls that he planned to make on friends, he decided to cancel the remaining thirty-three so that he could spend the entire day with her.

1 comment:

jeanne said...

So very interesting! Thanks and Happy Valentine's Day!