“Don’t Forget your Soldier Lovers!” A Story of Civil War Valentines

“Don’t Forget your Soldier Lovers!” A Story of Civil War Valentines

Is materialism ripping out the heart of Valentine’s Day?

Every February, thousands of Americans lament the commercialism of this holiday with critical articles and tweets about modern consumerism. Some blame the pressures of social media on the rise in spending. And it is definitely rising; the National Retail Federation estimates that more than $20 billion will be spent on 2019’s Valentine celebrations. The creativity of advertisers is not to be undersold, of course, as enterprising executives have discovered how to widen the consumer market to include those who are currently unattached. “After the chocolates have been eaten and the flowers wilt, roaches remain thriving and triumphant. Give the gift that’s eternal and name a roach for Valentine’s Day.” That’s right, for fifteen dollars, you can name a roach after your ex and send them a digital certificate from the Bronx Zoo.[1]

Valentine’s Day advertisement in The New York Herald, January 27, 1863. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Some may be surprised to learn that St. Valentine’s Day, and all its commercialism, was alive and well during the bloodiest war of our nation’s past. Much like today, nineteenth-century advertisers and newspapers relentlessly warned their patrons that the holiday loomed. On February 11, 1864, the Holmes County Farmer newspaper in Ohio read, “We are reminded that Valentine Day is approaching. Tuesday next, the 14th inst., is set aside as the carnival of lovers. It is said the birds choose their mates on that day, and, it being leap year, it is expected all the marriageable girls will select their mates.”[2]

During the war, companies ran a number of Valentine ads that targeted women with loved ones off at battle. “Don’t forget your soldier lovers. Keep their courage up with a rousing Valentine. All prices. Six cents to five dollars each,” advertised Strong’s Valentine Depot in 1862. In 1863, New York City’s American Valentine Company promoted “soldiers’ valentine packets,” “army valentine packets,” and “torch of love packets.” In Washington D.C., Shillington’s likewise advertised packets specifically for soldiers, which “contains two superb sentimental valentines and elegant embossed envelopes; also comic valentines and beautiful valentine cards in fancy envelopes.”[3]

Valentine’s Day advertisement in The Evansville Daily Journal, February 11, 1862. Courtesy of Chronicling America.

In some cases, this collision of holiday and war was quite jarring. For example, in February 1862, Indiana’s Evansville Daily Journal described Main Street bookstores filled with card displays “large and varied enough to suit the tastes of all.” Immediately beneath this bulletin was a notice to the recently wounded and those in mourning: “Disabled soldiers applying for pensions, and the widow or heirs of soldiers who have been killed, or died in service, should call” began the section, followed by another notice related to “troops moving.” This newspaper column, flowing from one topic to the next, provides powerful insight into the daily experiences of the homefront. Yes, the war was about troop movements. Yes, the war included wounds, death, and pensions. But even as wives worried ceaselessly about the loss of husbands, scanning the papers for news, they also read advertisements and planned for their Valentine’s celebrations. Life did not stop in the midst of war. Neither did holidays. And advertisers knew it.[4]

Soldiers at war also remembered Valentine’s Day. Though they appear less likely to purchase formal Valentine’s stationery, original poetry and letters of love came home in abundance. One particularly special valentine came from Confederate soldier Robert H. King, who created a paper heart with a pen knife for his wife, Louiza. When opened, the seemingly random holes in the paper reveal two people separated from one another, crying.[5]

Robert H. King’s valentine for Louiza. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

On November 8, 1861, Robert had written to his wife, “it panes my hart to think of leaven you all” and signed his letter as many soldiers did, with “yours til death.” Ultimately, this would be true, and all Louiza would be left with was this paper heart. Robert died of typhoid fever near Petersburg, Virginia, in April 1863. She kept this valentine until her own death decades later, perhaps believing there is more heart in handmade.[6]

To return to our original question, are our contemporaries correct in their claim that materialism is ripping out the heart of Valentine’s Day? Perhaps not. At least in the nineteenth century, materialism was part of the holiday all along. When Sarah Woif married Sylvanus Emswiller of Shenandoah County on Valentine’s Day 1861, she likely was not thinking about advertisers, but rather, the love associated with the holiday. She certainly was not thinking about the fact that she, too, would become a widow in 1863 when Sylvanus died of pneumonia, fighting with the Second Virginia Infantry. Love, loss, celebration, heartache – they all swirled together in the Civil War. And the newspapers certainly reflected it.[7]


[1] Katherine Cullen, “Is love still in the air?” National Retail Federation, January 30, 2019, https://nrf.com/blog/love-still-air; “Name a Roach,” Bronx Zoo, accessed February 10, 2019, https://bronxzoo.com/roach.

[2] Holmes County Farmer, Millersburg, Ohio, February 11, 1864. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84028822/1864-02-11/ed-1/seq-3/.

[3] The New York Herald, February 14, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1862-02-14/ed-1/seq-5/; The New York Herald, February 7, 1863. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1863-02-07/ed-1/seq-8/; The National Republican, Washington, D.C., February 8, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014760/1862-02-08/ed-1/seq-3/

[4] The Evansville Daily Journal, Evansville, Indiana, February 11, 1862. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015672/1862-02-11/ed-1/seq-2/.

[5] Robert H. King, Valentine to Louiza A. Williams King of Montgomery County, Virginia, undated, in Robert H. King Papers, 1861-1910, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

[6] There is a photograph of Eliza (c. 1910) within this collection. Her exact date of death is unknown. Robert H. King to Louiza A. Williams, November 8, 1861; ibid.

[7] George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War Database, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV.

Angela Esco Elder

Angela Esco Elder is an assistant professor of history at Converse College. She earned her doctorate at the University of Georgia, and the following year she was the 2016-2017 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research explores gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the Civil War Era South. She is the co-editor of Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.

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