The onslaught of pink and red hearts, frilly Valentines, the promise of roses, love poems, candy, or jewelry is already upon us. It can only mean one thing: Valentine’s Day and all its romance and loving wishes is around the corner.
Valentine, an early Christian, was martyred on February 14th, the same day an ancient Roman love lottery took place annually, and so, once raised to sainthood, St. Valentine somehow transitioned to being the patron saint of lovers everywhere.
The holiday has been observed in some form for more than a few centuries, and beginning in the Victorian Era and straight into 2018 people have celebrated this romantic day in high style, spending a lot of money on trinkets to show their affection.
But, what was happening in the late 1800s in the pioneer west where life was more hardscrabble and certainly few homesteaders had the time, money, or energy to celebrate a day devoted to love? More than likely, February the 14th was yet just one more day in a seemingly endless winter. Farm life paused for no one or no special day. The cows might still have to be milked, firewood chopped, laundry washed, meals cooked, sick children worried over. There is no hard evidence at the Syracuse Museum that the early residents of Syracuse and the surrounding towns sent Valentine’s cards, planned romantic candlelit meals—gosh, every meal was eaten by candle light or gas lamp. The big cities on the east coast were one world, but out here during that time, roses were unavailable—especially in winter—there were no fine, white tablecloth restaurants, and costly chocolate candy was not an option, especially when money was tight and necessary staples had to be purchased for the family’s survival.
So does this mean there was never any attempt at romance or pretty, frilly things? There is one clue at the Syracuse Museum that lets us peek into the world of the average person of that time period: hand-made lace items and delicate crochet creations. Somehow, pioneer women transformed simple cotton threads into gossamer hats, doilies, dress collars, and clothing embellishments. It’s not difficult to envision rough, chapped hands with a crochet hook forming a cap or tatting with bobbins and a pillow to make lace. There are many examples of fine lacework and crocheting on display throughout the museum cases that offer silent testimony to the skill and craft of the pioneer woman. She may have faced long, hard days helping her husband and children carve out a life in the fields, but at some point—perhaps after dinner or on a stormy day—she made time to allow her feminine side to surface as she lovingly made these precious items.
One thing on display that speaks volumes is a simple camisole. Skilled fingers from many decades ago added a lacy crochet edge along the neck and shoulder area. Surely, a wife wanted to look appealing to her husband and perhaps this led to a romantic interlude.
Hearts? Candy? Flowers in the winter of 1885 in Utah? Probably not. But efforts were made to soften the edges of a hard life with few interludes to celebrate romance. This romance may not have been what we would embrace, but there was love within families and communities that shone through, not on just one special day in February, but all the year round.
By Sue Warren