Victorian Valentine
Stately Oaks shares traditions of love during February

By Joel Hall


While the Victorian-era is responsible for many of the Valentine's Day traditions Americans hold dear today, many of those traditions were very different in those days.

While today, a yellow rose often symbolizes friendship, in the 1800s, it expressed jealousy and suspicion against one's lover. While a bouquet of white roses may symbolize purity today, it once symbolized "I love you not."

These love traditions and many others will be shared with visitors to Stately Oaks Plantation during its Victorian Romance Tours, offered throughout the month of February.

While taking the tour, visitors will learn the Victorian traditions of dating, courtship, love, marriage, and wedding traditions. Each couple that comes through the door will receive a complimentary Victorian Valentine, replicated from cards which would have been given in the late 19th century.

"The Victorians were a very romantic people," said Barbara Emert, president of Historical Jonesboro -- the preservation society which operates Stately Oaks. "Most men today will go to the florist and say put something together. Every flower had a meaning," back then, she said.

Emert said that in the Victorian period, social etiquette often prevented people from expressing their true feelings. To make up for it, they did it in more subtle ways, such as sending flowers.

"You could send somebody a bouquet of flowers and it could be really insulting," said Emert. She said different colored roses symbolized all kinds of love, such as true love (red), innocent love (pink), vigorous love (orange), eternal love (purple), uncontrollable desire (wild rose), and distant admiration (moss rose).

Other types of flowers in a bouquet could represent a variety of complex emotions. Periwinkles would symbolize early friendship, poppies offered condolence, and anemone signified a dying love.

"They were really inhibited then," said Emert. "There were so many rules and decorum that they didn't say what they thought. They had to find something to speak for them."

Susan Pelfrey, office administrator for Stately Oaks, said that Valentine's Day cards reached the height of their popularity during the Victorian era and often featured intricate three-dimensional artwork. In addition -- due to an increased interest in all things Greek and Roman -- cupid became a prominent holiday figure for the first time.

As the Victorians were a superstitious people, Valentine's Day also consisted of love spells, love charms, and omens, which many believed could determine the outcome of love.

For young girls, "the first bird you saw on Valentine's Day meant the type of man you are going to marry," said Pelfrey. She said a blackbird meant a priest, a robin meant a sailor, a sparrow meant a farmer, a dove meant a loving man, a yellow bird meant a rich man, and a blue bird meant a happy man.

According to traditions, a young woman who saw a woodpecker would not marry at all, Pelfrey said.

"This is the second year we have had this," said Pelfrey. "Everybody seemed to enjoy it. They liked hearing about some of the customs about Valentine's Day that don't always get clarification."