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A Vintage Valentine’s Day That’s the Cat’s Meow:
Ideas from the 1920s
 
By Ronlyn Domingue
Author of
The Mercy of Thin Air: A Novel

A smiling girl in a cloche hat or a self-conscious young man leaning on his Model T will mesmerize me. I will stand in one place for hours at an antique store or flea market, slowly flipping through photos and cards from the 1920s.

Old Valentine’s Day cards leave me wondering every time. Why was there only a signature? Or what was said between the lines of a message from a young man to his sweetheart? And what did they do on their date that evening?

This fascination led me to research Valentine’s Day traditions of the Jazz Age when I worked on my first novel, which takes place in 1920s New Orleans.

What I learned made me wish I could time travel to experience the fun first-hand. At least there are pictures and articles about those days, giving us a chance to recreate a holiday that’s the berries here and now.

Sweet Ideas
No understated gathering would do on Valentine’s Day in the 1920s. Theme parties were all the rage, which sometimes reflected interests of the day. Rudolph Valentino’s silent film “The Sheik” inspired fascination with the Arab world (as it was once called), and a living room would be transformed into a pillowed, lantern-lit den of veiled ladies and turbaned men.

Women’s magazines and home-making booklets offered suggestions for elaborate events which included instructions on the invitation design, interactive games, and refreshments. Often, the parties were intended for young unmarried men and women. The games were created to inspire conversation or physical closeness.

The following activities are meant for groups, and they are all suitable for children. If it’s just you and someone special, an adaptation is included.

  • Tied Together: Tie a piece of string to a fixed point, such as a table leg. Stretch the cord, twist around furniture, and end in another room. At each end, tape or tie a number. Do this several times for as many couples as you’ll have at the party -- but start all the string trails in the same room. Then, when the guests arrive, separate the men and women. Give the men their numbers and send them to the trail ends. Give the women duplicate numbers and instruct them to wind up their string, no matter where it takes them, to find their partners. The man with her same number is who she’ll sit next to at dinner or partner with for a game you’ve planned. (For two people: Make the string trail, but have a special gift waiting at the end.)
     
  • Pieces of the Heart: Make several paper hearts of all sizes -- large and small. Each heart will be cut into a puzzle. There should be one piece per guest. Place the pieces throughout a room -- in full sight and hidden. When the guests arrive, have them find a heart piece each. Once all of the pieces are found, have the guests put the hearts back together. Those who complete a heart will sit together for the meal. (For two people: Make a heart and write a message on it. Cut it into a puzzle and hide the pieces throughout the house. Another option is to write clues on each piece and hide them. Once the heart is matched together, the clues should lead to a hidden surprise.)
     
  • Note Tree: Paint a tree on cardboard or use a real one for this activity. Get small envelopes and blank cards. Use red envelopes for the girls, white for the boys. On two cards, write a message such as “I’ll be waiting near the fireplace” or “Meet me at the top of the stairs.” Place one card in a red envelope, the other in a white one. Repeat this for as many couples as you’ll have at the party. Tape, hang, or tuck the envelopes on the tree. When the guests come, have them pick cards from the tree. They will open the cards, go to the location noted, and meet their partners for dinner or a game. (For two: On each card, write a note about what you love, appreciate, or admire about the person, or write clues that will lead to a surprise.)

Sweet Nothings
Since the Victorian era, the poems and verses in Valentine cards have ranged in tone from amorous to comical. It was less common for sweethearts to put their feelings into their own words once advances in printing made cards less expensive and widely available.

Here’s an example of an intense Valentine’s Day sentiment:

Why does the sky seem fairer today?
Why does the rose blush deeper, oh, say?
What is the reason the world seems so gay?
Answer, my heart, oh, pray!

My lover has come, my heart makes reply
It speaks in my bosom with love’s whispered sigh
Shine on, azure heaven, blush deeper, queen flower
For I have found rapture in this mystic power.

No disrespect to the poet, Margaret Wheeler-Ross, but the last two stanzas are much of the same outpouring. The poem ends with “. . . my Lover, my King!” Need we say more?

On a much lighter side, many Valentine’s Day greetings used the slang and expressions of the times. The graphics often had a “cartoon” quality.

 

The text at the bottom reads--
Valentine
"I've made the first "move"
So why not get wise
that you're a "Movie-Hero"
in my "eyes."

If a card off the shelves wasn’t what you had in mind this year, there are hundreds of vintage Valentine’s Day cards for sale on line. You’re on your own with a Google search.

For those who want a vintage feel and have the creativity to pull it off, make your own. Visit sites that show 1920s cards to see the range of subject matter and designs. To pen verses that are the bee’s knees, use the words of the 1920s. Two comprehensive sites are The Internet Guide to Jazz Age Slang (http://home.earthlink.net/~dlarkins/slang-pg.htm) and Slang of the 1920s (http://local.aaca.org/bntc/slang/slang.htm).

Sweets for Your Sweet
The traditional box of chocolates was as popular in the 1920s as it is now. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s guaranteed to please. But if you don’t mind spending time in the kitchen, a homemade treat might make your thank-you hug last a little longer.

This beverage must be an ancestor of a coffee shop favorite familiar to us today. Making it would be a labor of love.

Mochachocola
1/4 cup cocoa
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 quart milk
1 quart boiling water
1 pint strong coffee

Mix the cocoa, flour, and salt. Stir in the sugar and add the boiling water slowly. When carefully combined, put over the fire and boil slowly fifteen minutes. Scald the milk and pour the cocoa mixture into it. Heat the coffee almost to boiling and add it to the mixture. Beat with a dover egg-beater one-half minute and serve very hot with whipped cream sweetened and flavored with vanilla.

(Note: A dover egg-beater is a hand-held device -- beaters at the bottom, crank at the top -- which we’ve all seen in old movies. You can use a regular mixer.)

Coconut Crisps
1 1/2 cups shortening
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 cup shredded coconut, chopped
1 egg, well beaten
1 teaspoon baking-powder
1 cup flour, sifted

Cream shortening and sugar together thoroughly. Add coconut and egg. Sift flour and baking-powder together and add to first mixture. If dough is not stiff enough to roll out easily, add more flour. Roll out very thin. Cut with heart-shaped cookie cutter. Place on a buttered baking-sheet, and bake in a hot oven (425 degrees F.) for 10 minutes or until a light brown.

(Note: To give the cookies a pink or red tint, put a few drops of food coloring before you add the flour.)

Almond Macaroons
2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking-powder
1 cup almonds blanched and cut into small pieces

Sift the salt and the baking-powder with the flour. Beat the eggs slightly and add the sugar, then the flour. Add the almonds last. Bake in small well-greased tins for fifteen minutes in a moderate oven.

(Note: A moderate oven is 350 to 400 degrees F.)

Sources: Ideas and exact recipes were found in McCall’s Magazine and The Ladies Home Journal, February issues from 1920 to 1929. Ideas also came from “Parties All the Year” by Claudia M. Fitzgerald, McCall’s Home-Making Booklet, 1924. The cartoon card was found on the Dallas Historical Society’s site (http://www.dallashistory.org/).

Copyright © 2006 Ronlyn Domingue

Author:
Ronlyn Domingue
is the author of The Mercy of Thin Air (Atria Books; September 2005; $24.00US/$33.00CAN; 0-7432-7880-1) -- a love story set in 1920s New Orleans. She lives in Louisiana and is at work on her second novel. Visit www.ronlyndomingue.com.