Saturday, April 25, 2015

Exeter Canning Company

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 24, 2015.

Photo courtesy of Peter A. Smith
At the opening of the twentieth century, marketing of canned goods took off. Much of the credit for this goes to improvements in the safety of canned foods. In 1915, Exeter became the home to this industry with the creation of the Exeter Canning Company – a wholesale food packing factory located on a triangle of land behind Salem Street. Today, if you check Google Earth, there is no trace of this company, not even the outline of its buildings.

Preserving food to last between growing seasons has always been a challenge. Salting, smoking, pickling and preserving were the only options people had until the early 1800s when rudimentary canning was developed to help ship food to Napoleon’s army. Heavy metal cans with crudely soldered lids were packed tight with meats. If the can didn’t swell (a sure sign of decomposition) then the food was deemed safe to eat. These early canned goods had the added benefit of lead soldering, so if the food wasn’t outright rotten, the seal provided a low level of lead poisoning. Needless to say, outside of the military canned foods didn’t catch on. Home canning in lidded glass jars flourished to some degree, but spoilage continued to be a problem.

Beef hastily supplied for use during the Spanish American War of 1898 was so poorly packed that it came to be known as ‘embalmed beef’ by the army. With illnesses on the rise, the scandal of adulterated canned goods dominated the news and lead to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Combined with the growing awareness of the germ theory, food preservation took a great leap forward as sanitary factory conditions began to be seen as marketable.

James H. Ingersoll, according to the Exeter News-Letter, a “pioneer in the canned goods industry,” arrived in town in 1915, eager to build a sanitary canning factory. Perhaps to bolster the new business, the Exeter News-Letter ran a short article extolling the virtues of the tin can. “The tin can is the emblem of civilization. Its absence defines the savage; its use sets apart from barbarians the modern, forehanded, sanitary man. It is civilization’s defense against the leanness of lean years and against the attacks of carnivorous germs. It has been improved in the last 10 years; the top and bottom are no longer soldered on, they are crimped on, so that no corrosion can result from acid contents. Cans are now sealed in a vacuum, so that no bacterial change can be set up within. And machinery for making cans and the machinery for filling and sealing them have been perfected until the process in each case is now a continuous process, and the process wholly mechanical, in which the workmen share with their hands only to pull levers and adjust apparatus.” So clean, so sanitary.

Exeter had a number of advantages for the new business, including close proximity to the Boston & Maine railroad and access to local farmers. At this time, the town and surrounding area was still quite rural, although Ingersoll may have underestimated the output of local farmers. Rather than producing large volumes of one crop, most local farmers mixed their agricultural output. In this manner, if one crop failed there were others to fill in the loss. The largest local crop was hay – easy to grow, but not much good for canning. Still, Ingersoll was optimistic. He shipped wholesale in big number 10 cans to markets in Boston, Providence, Springfield and other New England cities.

Ingersoll focused on only a few products: corn, string beans, apples and baked beans. Of these, all could be obtained locally. He offered premiums to local farmers, including seed corn for the next season. Farmers were generally pleased to have such a ready market for their goods. Ingersoll’s advertisement in November of 1915 pledged, “we shall take no apples or string beans of anyone except from those who plant corn for us, giving our patrons the chance to dispose of their other canning products before taking from others who do not plant corn.” It was a pretty good deal for the farmers. Ingersoll awarded prizes to his best producers. W. Leslie Dining of Stratham won $25.00 in 1917 for the best acre.

The factory ran at full volume in the summer and fall when produce was abundant – sometimes almost too abundant – and winter and spring were busy packing baked beans. The seasonal nature of the business sometimes made it difficult to find workers. In October of 1918, when men were away fighting in World War I and influenza was felling many workers, Ingersoll desperately advertised, “WANTED: 30 to 50 Women – good wages! Steady work!” Priscilla Williams Johnson, a student in the Normal School division of the Robinson Female Seminary, went to work at the factory during the flu outbreak when the schools were closes. She later remembered to Nancy Merrill that the pay was good. She didn’t, however, stay with factory work. Johnson went on to become a long-time teacher in Exeter.

Ingersoll’s factory flourished for seventeen years. In 1927, it was abruptly announced that a sheriff’s auction would be held to disperse the holdings of the company in March. James Ingersoll died in November at the age of 76, so he didn’t linger into retirement. His obituary was complimentary, “president of J.H. Ingersoll & Company, Exeter, which until reverses did a business of considerable proportions.” Considerable indeed, his business met the needs of the time and helped advance the sanitary standards we all take a bit for granted today.

Photo: Canned goods became popular in the early part of the 20th century – as evidenced in this photo c. 1903 in an Exeter grocery store. (Photo courtesy of Peter A. Smith.)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Death of President Abraham Lincoln – Exeter Reacts

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 10, 2015.

No United States president had been murdered before. Two presidents had died in office, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but in each case there had first come word of illness and people knew that even minor illness could result in death. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was startling because of its suddenness. Even the long years of war with weekly announcements of battlefield deaths did little to prepare people for the violent actions of John Wilkes Booth.

Probably the first Exeter citizen to hear the news was Gilman Marston. Marston was a well-respected lawyer in Exeter at the outbreak of the war. Dabbling in politics, he’d served two terms as a congressman when the war broke out. Quickly signing on with the New Hampshire 2nd regiment, he’d risen to the rank of brigadier general. Wounded frequently, in 1865 he returned to politics and had just taken the congressional oath for a third time. At age 53, he was back in Washington preparing to ease out of the army and take up government work again. His diaries, which reside in the archives of the Exeter Historical Society, are notable not only for their brevity but for his nearly indecipherable handwriting. On the fateful evening of April 14th, Marston writes: “About 10:30 pm while standing in front of the National, a young man passing by (said) the president was shot in theatre. Called up R and went to the house where the President had been carried – there heard of the assault on Seward – went to his house – returned to the President.”

How long he lingered outside the Petersen house is unknown, but at some point he returned to his rooms at the National Hotel. He learned of the President’s death the next morning, jotting in his diary, “Heard at breakfast that the President died at 7:22 this morning. Vice President Johnson took a oath prescribed for a President.”

Word reached Exeter quickly. Hannah Brown, a 62 year old seamstress living on River Street, was shattered when she heard the news. Her diary entry reflects the suddenness of the news. “This day sad and awful news came over the wires to us that last evening an assassin by the name of Booth went in to the theatre at Washington and shot our President Abraham Lincoln. What a shock it gave us all what horrible thing it is to think of!”

By the time the weekly Exeter News-Letter was published on Monday, April 17th, there was no one in town who hadn’t heard the news. The paper is a mish-mash of jubilant news of the surrender of Richmond followed by Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the rebel city and the deep sorrow at his subsequent death. The account also reminds us that Booth was not a lone assassin and the plot had included planned attacks on the Vice President, who was unharmed, and Secretary of State William Seward, who would barely survive a vicious knife attack by Lewis Powell. “Had the President only been murdered,” wrote the News-Letter, “we might have supposed it the work of some insane or intoxicated wrench, but the murderous assault on Mr. Seward, and the preparations of escape, tell us that deed is the result of a conspiracy against the chief men of the country.”

Harold Blake, a 13 year old from Kensington, was working as a Western Union messenger boy in Washington, DC when the President was killed. Fifty years later, his memory of the night appears confused. He writes that he and his father were to attend Ford’s Theatre that evening, but late streetcars made them miss the beginning of the show and they attended a performance of “Moll Pitcher” at Grover’s Theatre instead. He remembered nothing of the turmoil of that night, believing that the play he saw must have ended before the assassination occurred. But he wasn’t at Grover’s on April 14th. Tad Lincoln was there, watching a performance of “Aladdin! or His Wonderful Lamp” when news reached the audience that the President had been shot. Blake must have confused the night and the play with another time. He did, however, recall how he and his father heard of the President’s death. “It was not until next morning when Orderly Eaton and I, riding to the city, saw bunting being removed from private and public buildings, and being replaced with crepe and the flags half-masted. The appalling story of the tragedy of the night before was being told in voices subdued and broken. Few dry eyes were there that day.”

Far away in Paris, 22 year old Edward Tuck had just been appointed as a consular pupil at the U.S. Consulate. His days were spent buried in clerical work, but he kept abreast of the news of the war as best he could. Several years earlier, an attempt to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable had failed, so in April of 1865 it still took 11 days for news to arrive from the States. He would write to his father, on April 28th, “The horrible news first reached Paris on Tuesday afternoon. It was brought to the Consulate from the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange), but I disbelieved it as the Bourse dispatches have nearly always proved false. In the evening private dispatches from England confirmed it. The agitation was immense. Americans wrung their hands and even cried, in some cases, like children.” The Tuck family was well acquainted with the Lincolns, so his grief must have been acute. His words to his father reflect the nation’s attempt to make sense of a senseless act. “The death of no man in the world could have produced so melancholy an effect. His martyrdom casts the last and greatest dishonor on the southern cause…In the great grief which every American feels, as for a near relative, it is comforting to think his death has purchased for himself a place by the side of Washington, and for his country and his country’s cause a sympathy that only result in good.”

Photo: Gilman Marston, Brigadier General and congressman, was most likely the first Exeter citizen to hear of the death of President Lincoln. Upon hearing the news he rushed to the scene before the President’s condition was announced to be fatal. Confirmation came the next morning.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Messenger Boy

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 27, 2015.

In the collections of the Exeter Historical Society is a photo labeled, “the only messenger boy in town!” In the picture, there is a young boy of maybe 12 or 13 standing gravely next to his bike on Water Street looking straight at the camera. We don’t know his name or much about the photo album which contains the picture. Most of the pictures involve the printing office of the Exeter Gazette and the railroad post office. Even the caption provides us with no hint – is there only one messenger boy in town, or is this the only reliable boy to call?

Messenger boys, or telegram boys as they were sometimes called, worked long hours. It was their job to ferry messages to and from the telegraph office at the railroad depot. Telegraphy, utilizing Morse code, had followed the development of the railroad in the 1840s. Both the trains and the electric telegraph wires needed straight paths to travel, and the railroads had to have fast and dependable communication to coordinate traffic on the rails. By the time of the Civil War, the telegraph office had become the information superhighway. It was the quickest way to get information across the country. Getting the information from the telegraph office to the newspaper offices, however, still required racing across town.

In large cities, Western Union – which became a telegraph monopoly by the late nineteenth century – regularly hired boys between the ages of 11 and 18 to run messages to customers. The job was frequently paid by the mile, so once bicycles became common in the 1890s, Western Union was one of their biggest customers. Boys paid a rental fee for the bike and another fee for their uniform. Often making a mere two cents per message, he could earn up to two dollars per week – not bad if he was living at home, but most city messenger boys lived in flop houses and wiled away their off hours reading penny dreadfuls and smoking unsavory cigarettes. Because of their poor habits, larger Western Union offices kept the boys well away from the public – often hiding them in a back room or basement. 

Social reformers worried endlessly about messenger boys, while at the same time popular novels and stories hailed them as hard-working, self-employed, up and coming young businessmen. Horatio Alger Jr.’s rags to riches stories, such as Number 91: Tales of a New York Telegraph Boy gave these youngsters almost hero status. The image of a messenger boy on his bicycle became ubiquitous in the film industry. Receiving a telegraph carried thoughts of something unexpected happening – a birth, death or big announcement – and the messenger himself carried some importance.

But let’s not forget these were boys – often young boys – working long days. In Exeter, there were no big Western Union offices that offered the occasional meal and at least minimal schooling. By the turn of the century, children were required to be in school until reaching the age of 14, but the local telegraph office probably didn’t ask too many questions if a boy was on the tall side and willing to work. The boy in our picture has most likely provided his own bicycle – but unlike the city kids, he probably went home for meals and sleep. His down time was likely long and dull, similar to the pace of life in Exeter.

As telephones became popular in the 1920s, it would seem that the telegram and telegraph boys would have disappeared from the landscape, but the telephone was primarily for local use, communication from farther away still required the speed of the telegraph. In his book, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology and Geography, 1850-1950, Gregory Downey notes: “Messenger employment peaked around 1930 and began to drop off after World War II. With the increasing demand for the telegraph in the Roaring Twenties, the messenger’s employers managed to transform him into the much-advertised image of the smiling, uniformed, industrial soldier, ready to not only deliver a holiday telegram with a smile, but competent to carry out product surveys, to deliver direct-marketing samples and even to cover the office phones while the boss was away. And soon after World War II ended, a century after the first telegraph messenger appeared, finding any messenger image at all – save for a nostalgic one – was all but impossible.”

It was probably for the best. Boys at that age should be in school and not gallivanting recklessly around town on a bicycle. Our winsome little fellow would have been forgotten had it not been for someone – perhaps an employee of the Exeter Gazette – grateful enough of his quick delivery of news from the depot, who snapped his picture on dusty old Water Street one day.

Photo: An unknown messenger boy poses sometime in the 1890s on Water Street in Exeter. The Folsom Tavern can be seen behind him in its original location on the corner of Water and Front Street.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

What Color Should an Old House Be?

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 13, 2015.

The Ladd-Gilman House, c. 1860
In 1876, Charles Bell described for the Ladies Centennial Levee the appearance of the town of Exeter in 1776. “The character of the buildings was generally inferior. To be sure the best of them were spacious, handsome and constructed from the choicest materials, as a few surviving specimens still attest; but probably the major part of them must have been comparatively small and poor. Unpainted houses were the rule then; they are the exceptions now.” When purchasing an old house – or attempting to make a new house blend in to an old neighborhood – the question of paint color is often raised. Our collective vision of New England’s old neighborhoods yields street after street of tidy houses painted in ‘New England Up-Tight White,’ but is this what the town actually looked like back in colonial days? Probably not, but it most likely looked like that one hundred years later.

It is possible to do a paint analysis to determine the original color. This can be time consuming and expensive. Not to mention that, as Charles Bell pointed out, it was uncommon for most colonial buildings to be painted. Even by the early 1800s, unpainted buildings seem to have been the rule in town. Elizabeth Dow Leonard mentions, in her reminiscence of childhood in Exeter during this time period, the Second Parish Church – which one might think was a rather prominent building – was, “guiltless of trees or any other ornamentation, two stories in height and unpainted.” Her own family house, described by her as “the old mansion,” was painted white. Other buildings in town, if the color is mentioned at all, are usually described as red. Dr. William Perry mentions several houses in his memoir of the 1830s: “the house was old and much faded as I recollect it, and painted originally red,” “on the next lot was an old two-storied house, originally painted red, but much faded.” A few others where white, but red or unpainted seems to be the most common colors mentioned for houses in town.

The Exeter Historic District Commission offers some advice on appropriate colors for old houses. These can be found on their website. The colors correspond with age of the house – old houses have fewer options: red, white, various shades of yellow. James Garvin, long the state architectural historian, gives us some insight into these choices in his A Building History of Northern New England, “When painted, houses were often covered with inexpensive yellow and red paints made by mixing dry, pulverized earth colors with linseed oils. Such buildings sometimes had their exterior trim picked out in white lead paint. Not infrequently, the facades of houses were wholly painted in white lead, but the sides and backs were covered with cheaper red or yellow. In other cases, rare enough in the eighteenth century to excite comment, houses were entirely painted in expensive white lead, either pure or tinted by the addition of colored pigments.” All of these choices were fairly durable over time, but white painted had the unfortunate downside of being toxic to the apprentices and painters who worked with it.

If white paint was expensive and uncommon, why do we associate it with traditional New England? The answer to that takes us back to the centennial Charles Bell participated in and a period of faddish delight that followed known as the ‘colonial revival.’ At the time of the nation’s centennial a wave of nostalgia swept across the country and white became the popular color for anything perceived as colonial. Oddly, there was also a great deal of snobbishness associated with all things British, and it became de rigueur to connect with one’s English roots. One popular urban legend – still promoted by many localities today – was that of the ‘Tory chimney.’

A Tory chimney was one that was painted white with a band of black at the very top. The legend usually suggests that locals who were loyal to the crown would have their chimneys painted in this fashion to alert the invading British and avoid having their house destroyed. There is no evidence for this in practice and if you think about it, alerting the British would also alert all your angry patriot neighbors, so it wouldn’t be a particularly great idea. Garvin is unconvinced on the practice, commenting, “the spurious nature of this legend is clear when we reflect on the inaccuracy of eighteenth-century bombardment and the impossibility of targeting or sparing individual buildings. The result of naval bombardment during the Revolution was usually a conflagration that consumed the entire town, as at Falmouth.” So forget about that old chestnut and accept that black-banded white chimneys are simply pretty.

So, before you pick up all that white paint for your old house, keep in mind that there are a few other options. Garvin would encourage the use of the earthier tones, “earth colors offer a limited palette of rather dull but pleasant hues. Mixed with a white metallic pigment, these same colors produce a wide range of hues that are highly appropriate for older houses.” Exeter’s Heritage Commission will be hosting a program on historic house painting this spring at the Exeter Historical Society to provide more guidance – notice of the event will be forthcoming.

Image: The Ladd-Gilman house in Exeter, now the home of the American Independence Museum, seen in a stereo view taken by William Hobbs about 1860. Although it is difficult to determine the color of the house, it is clearly not white. White paint was expensive and even a building as important as this – the state treasury during the Revolution – was often painted in earth tones or not painted at all.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Our latest Exeter History Minute - Daylight Saving Time

Are you a fan of springing forward and falling back? Or are you apt to grumble to a co-worker or neighbor about the time change for a day or two? Have you ever wondered how this odd practice began? In this episode - click here to watch - Barbara looks at the history of Daylight Saving Time, from Benjamin Franklin to the Uniform Time Act of 1966. This history minute is generously sponsored by Stratham-Newfields Veterinary Hospital. (And special thanks to Chester Battarbee for playing the role of the trusty canine.)

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, www.exeterhistory.org. #ExeterHistoryMinute

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Winter : 1830s-Style

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, February 27, 2015.

The shortest month, February, seems like the longest month of winter. Granted the last month of any season always seems to have outlived its welcome. Yet, in New England we persist in living here even though every winter we have to go into survivalist mode. What’s with us? Have we always been this way?

Well, yes, the New England character seems to relish harsh weather – even as we gripe about it. This was as true in the 1830s as it is today. Paging through the early years of the Exeter News-Letter provides us with some clues about coping with winter. It’s rarely a good thing to fall into nostalgic magical thinking – “when I was a kid things were blah, blah, blah” – but in the case of winter it’s hard to deny that people had to be tougher about cold than we are today. We have moisture-wicking polypropylene underwear and lightweight fleece to layer under our down-filled jackets. And even if we can’t get teenagers to wear such things, at least we don’t commonly encounter newspaper stories like the January 29th, 1833 entry in the News-Letter: “Mr. Elijah Chase of Hampton Falls was found frozen to death on the road from Portsmouth to little Harbor on the 21st.”

Travelling from Hampton Falls to Portsmouth would have been an all-day affair and it would have been undertaken without the benefit of heated seats in a warm car. No mention is made of Mr. Chase’s horse, so likely he was walking. The physical exertion of walking would have kept him warmer than riding in an open sleigh, but it takes longer to walk and eventually the cold caught up with him.

Sleigh riding was both practical and recreational. Roads were rolled smooth rather than plowed and sleighs, encountering less friction than wheels, were faster than carriages. Horse’s hoof beats were muffled in the snow and, much like a Prius of today, people complained that they couldn’t hear them coming. The solution was to require sleigh bells. In February of 1833, the Exeter News-Letter passed along this notice from the New Hampshire Telegraph, “in these times of good sleighing, the law providing that horses travelling in sleights shall wear bells out to be rigorously followed up. The accidents happening from this neglect are numerous. Besides, what is the fun of riding without bells?”

But how could one keep warm in an open sleigh slicing through temperatures in single digits? In the 1830s the warmest material in the United States was the buffalo robe. James Page, a Water Street merchant, advertised annually from November through March, “a large and prime lot of Buffalo Robes, which will sell by the bale or single, as cheap as can be purchased elsewhere.” He also sold, “winter CAPS, consisting of fur-seal, nutra, hair-seal and cloth.”

Gentlemen were advised to grow whiskers. A December 1832 notice, passed on from the New York Citizen, encouraged, “everything in its proper season – cowslips in the spring, cucumbers in summer, cantelopes in autumn, and whiskers in winter.” Women, of course, didn’t have this natural advantage, but they did wear multiple layers of stockings and petticoats. In the collections of the Exeter Historical Society is a knitted all-wool petticoat (seven stitches per inch, for all you knitters out there), which would have kept the wearer as warm as wearing an afghan under her skirts. Not only was this a practical garment, but creating it would have certainly passed the time on long winter days. Knitwear has always straddled necessity and artistic expression. In November of 1832, the News-Letter remarked of a Portsmouth man wearing house cat yarn gloves, “the fine hair was combed from her back at the season when she would naturally shed her coat, and the product of two years has enabled his wife to prepare this new and elegant species of domestic manufacture.” How many months of housebound cold weather is required before you begin to look at your cat and think, “you know, I could make something out of all that fur…?”

Whiskers and blanket-like petticoats aside, we still have to admit that we have it easy. Our complaints about getting out of a warm bed would have fallen on deaf ears to people who were accustomed to having to break the ice in the wash basin every morning. At best our homes are ‘chilly’ in the morning and not actually cold. The scourge of children and the elderly were the dreaded ‘chilblains’ – an ailment that most of us have never heard of. The emergency department nurse practitioner consulted for this article has never seen a case in his 26 year career. Chilblains are an inflammatory reaction to rewarming the hands and feet too quickly after prolonged exposure to cold. It would cause swelling, intense itching with blistering and open sores. The News-Letter advised, in 1832, “it is said raw cotton bound on the feet is an infallible remedy.” Various concoctions and ointments were advertised. Doctor Tilton suggested “Wheaton’s Itch Ointment – cures in less than an hours application.” Likely the ointment did little good. Dr. William Perry’s book of prescriptions and compounded medications includes “Magic Healing Powder,” which consisted of chalk, burnt alum, camphor and calamine. It’s listed in the book right under “Dog Pills” and “Sea Foam Shampoo.” These are all good reasons to avoid time travel.

The end of February is always eagerly anticipated, but fair warning: March is a habitual tease. Even in 1833, John Sleeper, the editor of the Exeter News-Letter lost patience with lingering winter. On March 12th he noted, “the weather, with the exception of a few days lately, has been astonishingly cold. The thermometer running from a few degrees below, to a few degrees above zero. Our ideas are absolutely frozen, and we fear will not be properly thawed until dog-days: which must account, satisfactorily we hope, for the frigidity of the matter contained in our columns lately. It was but a few days since, having succeeded with great labor in thawing an idea, we attempted to transfer it to paper, but meeting with ill success, we examined our slylum, and found we were writing with an icicle.”

Photo: Front Street buried in the depths of winter, probably taken in the 1890s.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Valentine’s Day in Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, February 13, 2015.

Like Halloween, Valentine’s Day is a holiday that is not really a holiday. Any fourth grader will explain that unless they get the day off school, it’s not a holiday. But like Halloween, Valentine’s Day is more fun at school, so it all works out. Valentine’s Day is also a day one either loves or hates – depending on age and relationship status. So, there are some real mixed-feelings about the day. Whatever your view, it’s hard to ignore the day when everywhere you go there are red hearts and cupid decorations.

The holiday is old, that much we know. Depending on the source, it’s a pagan Roman holiday or a Catholic saint’s day or a combination of the two. The tradition that the date of Valentine’s Day – February 14th – was the day that birds begin mating in the spring indicates that it was definitely not native to New England. There’s no sign of mating birds in mid-February around here. Our birds are mostly hunkered down on the power lines questioning why they didn’t fly south months ago. Considering Exeter, and most of the Puritan northeast, didn’t even celebrate Christmas, one would think that Valentine’s Day would not be celebrated here. Christmas finally caught on in the late 1850s, so it was actually quite a surprise to find that Valentine cards are advertised in the Exeter News-Letter in 1848. “Stand Back! Stand Back!” the advertisement shouts, “Don’t crowd – you will be favored with an opportunity to select in season for the day, from the finest, richest, and best selected collection of Valentines ever offered in this vicinity. Wit and humor, fun and frolic, ridicule and sarcasm, as well as the most chaste and delicate compliments in the form of Valentines at Lovering’s Bookstore.”

These were most likely cards designed by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts. Howland was a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College and had received a commercially produced Valentine from England, where sending the cards had long been a tradition. Looking for a venture for her father’s stationary shop, she designed and marketed Valentines and is considered the founder of the practice in the United States.

In 1889, the News-Letter noted, “the number of Valentines received and sent from the local post-office yesterday showed a decided increase over last year. Batchelder reports a very satisfactory sale.” The postcard craze of the 1890s gave Valentine’s Day a boost throughout the country. Costing only a penny to buy and a penny to mail, people happily sent cards not only to sweethearts, but to children and family members as well. In 1909, young Betty Tufts recorded, “got 28 Valentines in all, 9 at school.” Valentine’s Day parties became quite popular around this time, and since then the ritual of opening and sorting the little cards has become part of the school year tradition. In the early 1970s, the classroom party included cookies, cupcakes and Hawaiian Punch. Probably kids today have healthier snacks, but sources from both Lincoln and Main Street schools in Exeter indicate that they still exchange Valentine cards in school.

Betty also received a 2 pound box of candy in 1909. Chocolate and flowers were an important part of Valentine’s Day as early as the 1920s. Oddly, there wasn’t much advertising about this in the 1920s. But in 1930 something triggered an explosion of Valentine’s Day advertising – maybe it was the Great Depression or maybe it was the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre in gangland Chicago. Whatever the cause, Valentine’s Day cards, candy and flowers are all heavily advertised beginning in 1930. A 1933 advertisement for Spauldings on Water Street read, “A Valentine is a priceless messenger of your friendship. Ask to see our friendly Valentines. Your little friends will feel really important if you send them a Valentine through the mail. We have some delightful child mechanical novelties at 5 and 10 cents.” Batchelder’s Bookstore asked, “Is your wife still your sweetheart? Send her a Rust Craft Valentine.”

But maybe a card wasn’t enough. “The best Valentine of all,” encouraged Hilliard’s Flowers, “and the most appreciated is the gift of flowers.” Seward Drug store went with the candy angle offering “Valentine Hearts by Whitman, Colecrest, Lowney and Apollo” along with a counter full of perfume selections.

Valentine’s Day competed with both Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays. It’s not like these two long-deceased presidents threw a wet blanket on mid-winter fun – the Washington’s Birthday Ball was a common event – but Valentine’s Day added something that the patriotic holidays couldn’t have – expressions of love. If nothing else, this is something we could all use to break out of our cabin fever during these cold, snowy weeks, and with the beginning of Lent breathing down our necks, February 14th is as good a day as any to enjoy some cupcakes with friends.

Photo: Valentine’s Day advertisement from the Exeter News-Letter, 1930