If you’re tired of endless left-swiping, fraught texting, and other current dating rituals, the Newberry invites you to travel in time to browse romantic customs of the past in our new Modern Manuscripts Digital Collection.
In addition to manuscript music, photographs, and printed ephemera, the digital collection’s 26,000 images include several thousands of pages of handwritten letters and diaries from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These documents, penned by those ranging from ministers’ wives to Civil War soldiers to a Chicago heiress, are invaluable to researchers studying the everyday lives of an earlier generation of Americans.
Featured below are a few examples documenting the ways in which people maintained contact with loved ones without the immediate gratification (and constant barrage) of email, text messaging, or emoji.
In the 1839 correspondence between Christopher Gardner Pearce and Jane Ann Sackett, topics range from health to local gossip to Pearce’s work as a steamboat captain; it’s only in the closing of the letters that one can see the relationship progress, shifting from “your affectionate friend” to a bolder “I am yours affectionately.” The budding romance accelerates off-screen (or off-page), when letters planning a visit are followed by a several-week gap; the next letter closes with “From your sincere & affectionate husband,” which Pearce signs with a self-satisfied flourish.
In Victorian times, locks of hair saved as mementos of loved ones were woven into jewelry, or arranged in keepsake books. The spectacular example pictured above was compiled by the Skiff family around 1845.
In a diary entry from 1896, teacher Emma Wormwood describes a lunch hour when the custom turns the schoolroom into an impromptu barbershop: “Had recitations in the morning but not very hard study. At noon Irwin clipped off a curl of my hair. Then Lou took one from the other side. Everybody got to cutting hair. I got a lock of the hair of each pupil present.”
Although the term was popularized on an episode of Seinfeld, the practice of re-gifting dates back much earlier, as shown in a letter from Civil War soldier Charles W. Gallentine: “You will please accept our thanks for the letter and more especially for the valentines. I dident [sic] consider it necessary for me to keep the valentine in order to show my respect for the sender so I sent it to another person that they too might have an insight into the mystiries [sic] of and the realities of life. I wouldn’t wonder if you was to hear from it again anon.”
Fellow soldier George Deal wisely safeguarded against re-gifting in an 1863 letter in which he promises to confirm that his valentine (pictured above) had been kept by its recipient: “I will Send you this valentine just because I thought it was nice. I know you will keep it till I come hom if i am so permitted. I would be glad to see you all even the cat.”
By Jen Wolfe, Digital Initiatives Librarian