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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Gold Rush Valentines

Valentine’s Day was not completely unnoticed in gold-crazed California, although females—only 8 percent of the statewide population in 1850—were noticeably scarce. Post offices were few and far between, too. That year, the thousands of young men who had rushed headlong to the gold fields in 1849 had to content themselves with sentimental poems published in newspapers, and fond longings for their wives and sweethearts back home.

In 1851, the editor of San Francisco’s Daily Alta sadly opined that it would probably be yet another year before California society would be “whole enough” (that is, have a more equitable male-female ratio) to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day with the same traditions observed in America’s East Coast and Midwest: dances, love letters, poems, and other appropriate tokens of affection. Perhaps unbeknownst to the Alta’s editor, a grand Valentine’s Ball was indeed celebrated that year at Chapman & Company’s stage stop hotel on the Placerville Road, drawing a large party from Sacramento City some twenty-five miles distant. (Whereas, in San Francisco, the only sizable remembrance of St. Valentine’s Day was a merchant-sponsored lottery for the sale of imported, fine gold watches.)

Yet as the 1850s progressed, Valentine’s Day became less celebrated, not more, despite the welcome rise in the female ranks to 30 percent of the population by the end of the decade. Newspaper articles continued to take note of the anniversary of St. Valentine’s death in Rome on February 14, AD 269, and valentine parties occurred here and there, but gold mining had become a capital-intensive big business, new industries were developing, and new political issues were surfacing. Amid the hustle and bustle of commerce in mushrooming new communities, tender sentiments were largely pushed aside. This did not, however, deter stationer’s efforts to market richly ornamented, often elaborately-constructed, commercially printed valentine cards. (In 1856, merchants took care to remind the ladies that, because it was a leap year, they were free to take the initiative in affairs of the heart.)

Be that as it may, California’s population was still male dominated, and the following year news editors in many towns lambasted the substantial numbers of brash, high-spirited young men who sent “comic” valentines of questionable taste to each other as jokes they thought were quite hilarious. In 1858, newspapers reported that Valentine’s Day was “not very generally observed” among the young people of San Francisco—and the day was completely forgotten in the mountain-high mining town of Weaverville. According to the Trinity Journal, not a single valentine card was displayed in any Weaverville shop window, nor any sent or received through their post office.

In contrast to such paucity of sentiment, postmasters in other towns throughout the decade witnessed near-avalanches of Valentine's Day missives flooding their facilities every February. Part of the fun involved a bit of titillating mystery. Many recipients found themselves challenged to discover the identity of the sender, when unsigned cards and notes were retrieved at the local post office, or stealthily slipped under a door.

But with three men for every female in California by the close of the 1850s, one can only suppose that each woman must have been someone’s heart’s desire. So who’s to know how many valentines any one unattached, marriageable maiden might have received from her secret admirers?

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