Historical Society display reminds Oregon of age-old Valentine's Day tradition
Visit the OAHS Museum, 159 W. Lincoln St., and see the Valentines on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., first Saturday of the month, or by appointment. More info: oregonarea
Whether you think it’s a made-up holiday or a reason to make a dramatic love gesture, we all have some type of Valentine’s Day memory.
Valentines are usually part of that tradition, and unlike the flowers or chocolates, they can last for decades.
Some keep valentines in old shoe boxes under their bed for decades. Some keep them for a year or two, while others hold on to them for just a couple days. But based on the vintage valentine display at Oregon Area Historical Society, it’s safe to say a good amount of Oregonians held on to their valentines for quite some time.
The display has about 200 valentines that date back from about the 1890s to the 1950s. OAHS museum coordinator Melanie Woodworth said it’s not uncommon to find old valentines in people’s estates after they pass and that all the sentimental card and valentines in the display came from Oregon people
Woodworth said the display, led by volunteers Ann Morris and Gene Doty, is part of an effort to bring in fresh seasonal exhibits to the society. Some of the valentines are just plain sweet, while others are, well, a reflection of the times.
“Some are not politically correct,” Woodworth said.
Just like in cartoons of the early 20th century, there are characters in blackface and one that says “Honest Injun, you’re my ‘chief’ desire.”
Unlike those dated closer to the Victorian era, which tended to incorporate lace and fabric along with images, the ones starting in the 1920s were much more colorful and comical, according to a collectibles magazine at OAHS called “Five and Dime Collectibles.” These are the majority of what’s in the display.
For instance, one has an illustration of a boy dressed as a pirate, and it reads, “If I could be a pirate, I would surely rob you of your heart today. You are my big heart throb.”
Themes of store-bought valentines varied from decade to decade, according to the magazine. In the 1920s, Felix the Cat and Betty Boop were favorite designs. In the 30s, Walt Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck first appeared, and as more Disney movies came out, so did their characters on valentines, like Snow White and Bambi. In fact, “Disney valentines have never been out of print, being the most enduring of all themes,” according to the magazine.
During World War II, illustration themes included sailors, soldiers and airmen. But after the war, valentines showed two main themes in American culture – comic heroes like Superman and Looney Toons.
Modern valentines continue to show cultural themes and characters of our era.
Oregon residents recall
It’s easy to assume no one makes valentines anymore and that “back in the day” everyone made them. But a visit with some older Oregonians shows that wasn’t always the case.
The trends varied from person to person and place to place, but Edna Bouma, 95, a 10-year resident of Oregon Manor Nursing Home, recalled that store-bought valentines were the bigger gesture when she was young.
“People didn’t have a lot of money to buy it,” noted Bouma, who spent most of her life on a 240-acre farm in Nebraska before moving here to be closer to her daughter.
Bouma also recalled making valentines and giving them to everyone in grade school, a tradition that still stands in many schools.
In Nebraska, Bouma worked at a gift shop near “swanky” department stores, and loved her work, which even included meeting Johnny Carson a few times before he was on The Tonight Show. (He was from Nebraska and lived nearby in his younger years.)
“Never a day I wasn’t happy at that gift shop,” she said.
At Oregon Manor, she’s still helps organize entertainment and crafts like valentines, which is one activity resident Carl Punswick, 89, took advantage of.
When asked about Valentine’s Day, he said his most prominent memory was exchanging valentines at school. However, for this year, he made a valentine for his sweetheart, Ruthie Morse, whom he was sitting next to at lunch when he spoke to the Observer.
To see the Oregon vintage valentines display, visit OAHS Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the first Saturday of the month or by appointment by calling 835-8961 or email at email@example.com. The display will be up throughout February.