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. Traditionally celebrated on Saint Valentine’s Day, the holiday acquired its amorous meaning during the Middle Ages, even though none of the martyred saints named Valentine seems to have had any particular connection to romantic love.1 In the early 1800s, there was a revival of the tradition when couples began to consider romantic love a prerequisite for marriage, and it later got an added boost in the 1840s with the introduction of mass-produced greeting cards. By the early 1880s, the amative feast day was ripe for commercial exploitation that went beyond the usual candy, flowers, and cards. It was at about this time that the hotels in New York were looking for new ways to attract people, having recently lost many of their permanent residents to apartment buildings. One idea was to host lavish theme dinners on the holidays, as reflected by this menu from the St. Nicholas Hotel on Valentine’s Day in 1882. The culinary wordsmith who named a dish “Potatoes à la Santa Claus” on their Christmas menu a few weeks earlier rose to the occasion again, this time christening a cake “Gâteaux à la Valentine.”

The hotel was not suggesting that its patrons have a romantic dinner in public, for that would have been unthinkable, even for married couples.2 Celebratory dinners of this kind were conducted within the prevailing customs and mores of the Victorian period. Still, the holiday was exceedingly popular. In 1882, the post office reported that it was busy delivering valentines cards until 11:30 PM, well past its normal 6:30 PM quitting time, even though it put extra carriers on duty that day.3 In concert with the mania for Valentine cards, the St. Nicholas Hotel had its special menu printed on expensive card stock showing cupid pulling a net from the sea. It was lithographed by De La Rue and Co., a British firm mostly known for making postage stamps and banknotes. 

St. Nicholas Dining Room (ca. 1882)
The festive dinners were not enough to save the St. Nicholas which closed its doors two years later. For most of its thirty-one years, the hotel had been at the center of the city’s social life; a place where innumerable romances were kindled. One particularly notable love story began there on New Year’s Eve in 1867 when Mark Twain was 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 uptown from his boarding house on Duane Street. Only seventeen at the time, little could he have imagined that one day he would meet his future wife in the lavish interiors of this 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 PM on 31 December 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 Schinto said...

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