Bygone Valentine’s Day

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society
 40s era Valentine. Courtesy illustration

40s era Valentine.
Courtesy illustration

The history of Valentine’s Day and its patron saint is as murky as a week-old box of See’s chocolates. The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine, all martyrs.  One, a third century Roman priest, defied a decree from the Emperor Claudius banning marriage among young men; the ban was based on Claudius’ belief that single men made better soldiers.

Legend has it that the imprisoned priest actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after falling in love with a young girl who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it’s believed he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine.”

Others claim that the Christian church may have placed St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and to Roman founders Romulus and Remus. According to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. Bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman – sort of a low-tech Match.com.

Whatever its origins, Valentine’s Day was a popular holiday among early Bay Area settlers.

As early as 1887, San Francisco’s Daily Alta California newspaper was waxing rhapsodic about the joys of young romance:

“The Fourteenth of February is a date indelibly impressed on the popular mind, for it is none other than St. Valentine's Day. Few saints in the calendar can boast of so widely extended a fame as is accorded to the memory of this most worthy Father. Sighing swains have ransacked the stationery establishments in search of prettily bedecked missives of tender sentiment…” 

Of course, the paper didn’t overlook the commercial aspects of the day: “The manufacturers of the countless cards and booklets which ask only the faintest raison d'être, have seized upon the memory of good St. Valentine to help them in the circulation of their dainty wares.”

Judging by coverage in the Sausalito News, Valentine’s celebrations were particularly popular in the 1940s.  The Woman’s Club hosted annual children’s parties, including dancing, performances by the young guests, and – of course – refreshments.

The following year, the paper giddily announced: “A special sort of Valentine arrived in the Thomas Decker family at noon on Friday, Feb. 14. As Valentines go, this one was pretty fair sized, seven pounds and four ounces to be exact.”  A baby girl, with a memorable birthday.

By 1943, WWII and Marinship were in full swing, but civil defense volunteers took time to plan some special entertainment: “The Graveyard Shift’s Civilian Defense Group very evidently intends to put on a real Valentine party Saturday night according to W. C. Billingsley, Chief Air Raid Warden and Chairman of the group. The party will be given in the Community building, the Auditorium of which will be arranged in a night club setting and soft drinks will be served to table guests by a staff of waiters from the group.” A 4-piece band played for dancing until 1:00 a.m., and the 50-cent admission fee went toward purchasing First Aid supplies.

Valentine festivities got off to an early start in 1944: “Among the first was the party Saturday, February 5, for the Sausalito children in the first through the fifth grades who have been participating in the recreation program at the Service Men’s Club. Valentine games were the features of the afternoon.”  In the evening a special dance for sixth, seventh and eighth graders was held. “A small fee of a few cents was charged at each party to cover cost of refreshments.”

Not to be outdone, “The Pre-School Play Center at the Service Men's Club celebrated Valentine's Day ON Valentine’s Day, an apparently unusual procedure. Twenty-two little ones made short work of the ice cream, cookies and candy and all went home with valentines and presents.”

Festivities continued after the War.  In 1947 a Valentine party was staged for young ladies earning their hostess badges in the Girl Scouts. “The 16 party-goers ate their dinner at card tables tastefully decorated by the hostesses, with gay centerpieces of daffodils and Valentine hearts.”

The following year Sunday school children of the Presbyterian church had their own celebration. “All the games played had a Valentine motif, and refreshments of cookies and punch were served. About 25 children were there. A 15-minute movie on locomotive engines and cars was shown by the Rev. Burton Alvis and Jerry Jones, Sunday school superintendent. Mrs. Frederick Wilson read two Valentine stories. Games for the younger children were conducted in a separate room.”

Here's hoping your Valentine’s day is every bit as festive.