Knoxville has celebrated Feb. 14 for generations, but not always with nice things. Its origin with the beheading of a Christian martyr is mysterious, and may have something to do with an odd Roman festival called Lupercalia, but Valentine’s Day was celebrated in England by the 1400s.
Tennessee’s first settlers probably didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day. However, Gov. John Sevier’s father, grandfather, brother, and nephew were all named Valentine Sevier. The family tradition ended when the youngest Valentine Sevier was killed in an Indian attack in 1792.
Knoxvillians have observed Valentine’s Day with cards since the decade before the Civil War. Back then, valentines were sometimes romantic, but were often pranks.
“To-day…everyone is at liberty to make love to, or poke fun at, in a sly way, somebody else,” according to an unsigned article in a Knoxville paper on St. Valentine’s Day, 1856. “To-day, many a trembling hope will be changed to sweet assurance by some love-winged missive—but there is a dark side to the picture.” The writer then mentioned “those horrid burlesques, whose gilded exteriors hold a rapturous promise to the eye but break the heart!”
In 1898, a Knoxville reporter toured downtown greeting-card shops. Some valentines were elaborate lovers’ notes, with images of cupid. But several cards ridiculed various groups of people with verse, perhaps akin to the “horrid burlesques” of 40 years earlier. One “valentine” showed a cartoon of a uniformed policemen secretly getting beer from the side door of a saloon, with the following poem:
“You sneaky, worthless rascal! How did you get a place
On the force of public guardians, with such a thievish face.
You haven’t got a particle of conscience or soul
And anyone that wants to can buy you with a bowl.”
Bicycling was at its height of popularity in 1898, and one “valentine” showed a bicyclist taking a tumble:
“When on your bicycle you’re but a clown;
You rouse the jeers and laughter of the town.
An awkward gawk you are as e’er was seen,
You can’t crack your skull, it is too green.
You often get a ‘header,’ so sell the thing at once.
Twas made for men of brains, not an awkward dunce.”
The prank card, known as the “penny funny valentine” remained a tradition for decades. As a local reporter remarked in 1908, “The number of true valentines that are sent out do not begin to compare with the thousands of [cards with] comical and grotesque pictures”.
Some young lovers chose Valentine’s Day for a wedding date. However, it does not seem to have been a day for going out on a date with a sweetheart. Heart-shaped Valentine chocolate boxes first appeared in the 1890s, and “conversational” sugar candies with love notes on them first appeared in 1901.
In the late Victorian era, a few affluent Knoxvillians hosted Valentine’s Day luncheons and parties. The Baptist Young People’s Union hosted formal public debates on Valentine’s Day, on pertinent subjects such as whether “under some circumstances, a lady ought to propose.”
The volume of mail was such that it was tiresome to postal clerks. “We have run into a regular snowdrift of valentine mail,” said Chief Mailing Clerk John Kidd in 1901. The post office was then in the building now known as the East Tennessee History Center. He estimated postmen handled about 6,000 extra letters, and 4,000 extra packages that week. “I suppose it is a delightful custom, but we can’t appreciate it here perhaps as we ought to,” Kidd said. “We like Groundhog Day better than any of the feast or fast days, because it is one of the days that everybody talks about but don’t write about.”
It was, mostly, a holiday for being silly, and perhaps a day one could be forgiven for insults and pranks, as long as they were on a funny card. Substantial gifts and personal dinners or dates became popular only recently.