Valentine’s Day in Old Ottawa

14 February 1848

In this increasingly secular world, few keep track of the liturgical calendar of the Church that determines when feast days, including the celebration of saints, are to be observed. If asked, other than Christmas and maybe Easter, people will likely remember just two dates—St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th and St. Valentine’s Day on February 14th, though the latter is typically shortened to just Valentine’s Day. But if you look up February 14th in the Catholic Church calendar, you won’t find a celebration in honour of St. Valentine but rather a celebration of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius who converted the Danube Slavs to Christianity in the 9th century, becoming known as the “Apostles of the Slavs.” (The Cyrillic alphabet is named after Saint Cyril.) St. Valentine used to be celebrated on that date, but, while he is still considered to be a saint by the Catholic Church, he was relegated to the minor leagues in 1969 owing to the lack of information about him.  

Icon of St. Valentine, author unknown.

While it’s possible that Valentine’s execution occurred on February 14th, some Valentine experts believe the Church co-opted an existing Roman pagan festival, the Lupercalia, a three-day event that ended on the ides of February (February 15th). The festival featured animal sacrifices and men and women cavorting in their birthday suits. As you might imagine, the Church wanted to snuff out this much-loved annual rite. St. Valentine’s Day was its response.

Celebration of St. Valentine’s Day is also linked to Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous 14th century author of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer wrote a poem called Parlement of Foules [Fowls]. The seven-hundred-line poem, which refers to Dame Nature overseeing birds that have gathered to choose their mates, contains the first known reference to St. Valentine’s Day as a special day for lovers. For this was on Seynt Valentynes day, When every foul cometh ther to chese [choose] his make [mate]…” [lines 309-310].

The first known Valentine’s Day greeting was apparently sent in 1415 by the Duc d’Orléans to his wife. The Duke, captured by the English at the Battle of Agincourt, was being held for ransom in the Tower of London.

Shakespeare gets into the act at the beginning of the 17th century with Ophelia in Hamlet saying To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All is in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine [Act 4, Scene 5].

Advertisment, The Packet, 2 January 1848.

The first reference to Valentine’s Day that I could find in Ottawa papers, dates back to the end of January 1848 when Ottawa was still known as Bytown. Henry Bishoprick, who sold writing desks, plateware and china, advertised in The Packet, the forerunner of the Ottawa Citizen, that he had an assortment of “Valentines for sale by the dozen or single.” Two years later, The Packet published on its front page a lengthy Valentine poem about Cupid written by Mrs. J. Y. Foster. The first verse ran:

Young maiden! Fair maiden! I bid you beware!

There is a sly spirit aloft in the air!

Though veiled by a mist from the bodily eye,

He glides in a fairy-formed chariot bye;

Two ring-doves yoked lovingly bear him along—

He is laden with poetry, blossoms and song;

Flames kindling and darting, his chariot illume,

But rose-hued and harmless, they fail to consume,

Though helpless he looks, yet all bow to his sway,

And he wounds who he pleased on Valentine’s Day.

By the mid-1860s, the exchange of Valentine cards was in full swing. At the time, one could send letters and cards through the mail without affixing postage. This required the recipient to pay the one cent fee for local delivery. In 1870, an article in the Ottawa Citizen advised senders of Valentine cards to pay the postage upfront. If the postage was not paid “even the most tender of Valentines, instead of fulfilling its high mission of kindling a mutual flame in the adored one’s breast, will only eventually promote combustion in the stoves of the Dead Letter Office.”

Cards and other Valentine gifts began to appear in stationery shop windows along Sparks and Rideau Streets in late January. They ranged from the sentimental to the comic, costing as low as one cent up to more than seven dollars. Consequently, there was something for every budget. 

Example of a 19th century Valentine, Source: Say It With A Camera On WordPress.com.

Reportedly, the cheapest cards typically depicted a white or a pale-tinted tablet bearing some appropriate sentimental or romantic inscription. The tablet was surrounded by bouquets of violets or roses. Cards made in England often featured verses by the Irish poet, William Allingham, the author of The Fairies, a poem still popular today with children. Another favoured author was Jean Ingelow. She burst on the literary scene in the 1860s with a book of poems. One of her most famous called Divided tells the tale of two lovers walking hand-in-hand on opposite sides of a little brook which gradually broadens to become a major river—very appropriate material for Valentine cards! English cards might also feature paper lace and silver foil. For a time, they were also decorated with feathers. In 1872, London newspapers protested this frivolity which had led to the demise of thousands of songbirds, including chaffinches, wrens, sparrows, linnets, and robins.

American Valentine cards, which were produced in the millions in a factory in Brooklyn, NY, apparently used verses of anonymous writers. A typical sentiment might be: Tho’ this heart but plasterboard be, There is a warmer one for thee. The American cards were often brilliantly coloured and featured hearts, blossoms and leaves with bevelled edges. Some depicted girls reading letters or plucking daisy petals.

Vinegar Valentine, 1910, public domain,
Atlas Obscura

However, not all Valentine cards were sweet and loving. Comic cards, sometimes called vinegar valentines, could be hurtful to the receiver. Their principal feature were ugly caricatures of men and women with unkind messages. Comic cards actually outsold the traditional, sentimental cards during the 1870s. At one point, three-quarters of the cards made by the Brooklyn factory were comic cards.

In 1872, the Ottawa Citizen ranted that Valentine’s Day was not being honoured with as much “love lettering as in the days of yore,” due to the baleful influence of “those cheap abominations called comic valentines by which mean and cruel people vent their envy and spleen.” That same year, a carter on Sussex Street sent a rival carter on the same street a vinegar Valentine card. This led to considerable hard feelings. The card’s recipient took the matter to court. Unfortunately, the outcome of the case was not reported.

Like today, picking and choosing the right Valentine to send to one’s love, could be a difficult and even traumatic event. Back in the 19th century, there was an additional hurdle for the shy or bashful to overcome. Purchasers couldn’t simply go into a store and look through a rack of cards. Instead, the buyer would tell a salesclerk what he or she wanted. The clerk would then bring out the requested type of Valentine cards for examination. A story appeared in the Citizen in 1877 describing the plight of a young man who, after peering at the display of cards in the shop’s window, anxiously looked up and down the street before entering, fearful of being recognized. Then, once inside, the poor youth blushed when he stammered out the requested article. Leaving the store, he hid his newly purchased Valentine’s card in his ulster (a long winter coat), his heart “beating fast at the thought of the dear bright eyes that will scan the glowing words.” This was clearly a more innocent age.

Another story described the predicament of a “young gentleman” under ten years of age. He preferred the cheaper kind of Valentine card owing to the number he had to send. He said: “A fellow has to send a Valentine to his girl, another to his chum’s girl, and one to the prettiest girl in his class because he likes her, and one to the ugliest girl because she’ll feel bad if she has none, and one to his teacher, and one to each of his cousins.”

The one person who did not appreciate Valentine’s Day was the postman. Having just recovered from picking up and delivering thousands of Christmas cards, he had to do the same with thousands of Valentine’s Day cards.

Valentine’s Day poem and suggestion from E.B. Eddy Company, Ottawa Journal, 14 February, 1893.

While the exchange of Valentine’s Day cards was the standard way of celebrating the festival during the 19th century, there were other possibilities. In 1894, the Ottawa Journal described how to host a St. Valentine party. The paper advised writing invitations on note paper decorated with hearts and ribbons. The event would consist of playing the card game Hearts for two hours with prizes. First prize would be a heart-shaped photograph frame and a heart-shaped pin cushion for the winning man and woman, respectively. The booby prize for a man would be a whisk broom decorated with a heart-shaped card illustrated with cupids and hearts and inscribed with the motto You need a broom, tis very plain, To sweep the cobwebs from your brain. For the losing lady would be heart-shaped candles, with the inscription By all wise things the wisest men do say, She wins most hearts who has the least luck to play.  The card game would then be followed by a supper featuring dainty, heart-shaped sandwiches, heart-shaped cakes, and ices and biscuits in, of course, the shape of hearts.

Finally, for the man who didn’t want to say it with a Valentine card or with flowers, the Ottawa man could take the E.B. Eddy Company’s advice and give the love of his life, fibre ware goods (pails, wash tubs and butter tubs) manufactured by the company. There is no report on whether any man dared to act upon Eddy’s recommendation or what happen to any who did.

Sources:

Chaucer, Geoffrey, 1381-82. The Parlement of Foules, http://www.librarius.com/parliamentfs.htm.

Gavin, Ian. 2021. “History of Valentine’s Day,” History, 29 January, https://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-2.

Ponti, Crystal. 2020. “Victorian-Era ‘Vinegar’ Valentines Could Be Mean and Hostile,” History, 10 February, https://www.history.com/news/victorian-valentines-day-cards-vinegar.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1866. “The True Story of St. Valentine,” 17 February.

————————–, 1870. “The Voice Of Love And The Dead Letter Box,” 8 February.

————————-, 1872. “St Valentine’s Day,” 14 February.

————————-, 1872. “From Different Places,” 13 March.

————————-, 1972. “A Valentine,” 19 February.

————————-, 1875. “St. Valentine’s Day,” 15 February.

————————–, 1876. “Valentine’s,” 10 February.

————————-, 1877. “How Valentines Are Bought,” 14 February.

————————-, 1879. “Valentines,” 14 February.

————————-, 1881. “St. Valentine’s Day,” 14 February.

————————-, 1881. “Local News,” 24 January.

Ottawa Journal, 1887. “How Valentines Are Made,” 29 January.

——————-, 1894. “St. Valentine Party,” 21 February.

Packet, 1848. “Valentines! Valentines!” 29 January.

——–, 1850. “Valentine Time,” 23 February.

The Phantom Air Raid

14 February 1915

One of the most curious events in Ottawa’s history occurred on Valentine’s Day night, Sunday 14 February 1915, six months after the start of the Great War. At roughly 10.30pm, the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, received an urgent telephone call from Mayor Donaldson of Brockville informing him that at least three German airplanes had crossed the St Lawrence River from Morristown, New York. The invaders, apparently seen by scores of Brockville citizens who were returning from Sunday evening church services, had just passed directly over the community travelling in a northerly direction, presumably towards the capital. One of the planes shone a powerful searchlight on the town, lighting up its main street. Reportedly, the planes dropped  “fireballs,” or “light balls,” into the river on the Canadian side of the border. Many Brockville citizens become hysterical.

After receiving the mayor’s call, Borden immediately contacted the Canadian Militia. Meanwhile, Brockville’s chief of police telephoned Colonel Percy Sherwood, Commissioner of the Dominion police regarding the air invaders. At 11.15pm, Sherwood ordered Parliament Hill to be blacked out to avoid giving the raiders an easy target.  While the phlegmatic Commissioner was not unduly apprehensive about the report of approaching enemy planes, he believed it expedient to take precautionary measures, including blacking-out key government buildings. The lights that illuminated the Centre block’s Victoria Tower when Parliament was in session were extinguished. The Royal Mint, which was also typically lit up at night, was similarly darkened. At Rideau Hall, home of the Governor General, the blinds were drawn. Although the Governor General was away inspecting troops in Winnipeg, his wife, the Duchess of Connaught, was in residence. Other buildings observed the black-out as news of the pending attack hit the streets. The Globe newspaper reported that the entire city of Ottawa was in darkness that night.

Victoria Tower
Centre Block, Houses of Parliament, Ottawa, 1914

Despite Ottawa being only 100 kilometres distant from Brockville as the crow flies, aviation experts told the Canadian authorities that it might take until midnight for the invaders to make their way to the capital owing to poor weather conditions, which included low clouds and rain. Recall that planes at that time were lucky to go much more than 100 kilometres per hour under favourable conditions. Smith Falls, Perth, and Kempville, which were on the expected flight path, were alerted, and told to keep a sharp look-out. But midnight came and went without any sign of the intruders.

The next day, newspapers were full of stories on the putative air raid. The Globe’s headline screamed: “Ottawa In Darkness Awaits Aeroplane Raid. Several Aeroplanes Make A Raid Into The Dominion Of Canada.”  In the streets of the capital, citizens experienced a frisson of excitement with the war apparently being brought to the city. The Ottawa Journal reported that “Ottawa feels first thrill of war,” and marvelled that usually reserved Ottawa citizens were stopping complete strangers on the street seeking news of the invaders. In the House of Commons, Sir Wilfrid Laurier rose and asked the Prime Minister for any information that he might be able to provide. Borden confirmed that he had received a telephone call from the Mayor of Brockville, and that he had communicated the news of the expected raid to the chief of the general staff, but he was “unable to give the point of departure of the aeroplanes in question.” That night, fearing that the previous night’s attack might have been aborted owing to bad weather and subsequently re-launched, government buildings were blacked out for a second night. Parliament sat as usual, but behind drawn curtains.

For two hours, Ottawa’s city council debated a motion submitted by St George Ward alderman Cunningham “that in view of the possibility of an air raid on the city hall while this august body is in session, Constable McMullen be instructed to pull down the blinds.” The Ottawa Journal wryly noted that the debate occurred under the glare of 61 electric lights which lit up the building. It also noted that the alderman frequently absented himself from the debate to climb the city hall tower to scan the skies for sight of the approaching planes so that he could be the first to warn his colleagues to take shelter in the cellar.

When no planes appeared, people started to look for other explanations. Quickly, suspicion focused on some Morristown youths, described as “village cut-ups,” who admitted to having sent up three “fireworks balloons” from the American side of the St Lawrence at about 9pm which exploded in the air above Brockville. Giving credence to this story, the remains of balloons with firework attachments were subsequently recovered from the ice on the St Lawrence two miles east of the town, as well as from the grounds of the Brockville Asylum, now called the Brockville Mental Health Centre. The ostensible reason for sending up the balloons was to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war of 1812. More likely it was a prank aimed at scaring Canadians.

Officials in Ottawa didn’t readily believe these reports. The Dominion Observatory reported that the wind that night was consistently coming from the east. It contended that as Morristown is directly opposite Brockville, any balloons sent up from the Morristown area would have travelled to the west, and certainly not in the direction the airplanes were said to have taken. The press also reported that militia authorities were in contact with Washington, and that a thorough inquiry had been set in motion to locate the airplanes’ base of operation.

Across the Atlantic in England, which had experienced its first German Zeppelin air raid just three weeks earlier, the phantom air raid on Ottawa was a source of merriment. By chance, the night after the Ottawa scare, the lights of Parliament at Westminster suddenly went out. Making a reference to the Ottawa raiders, William Crooks, Labour MP for Woolwich cheekily called out in the darkness” “Hello, they’re here!” The House of Commons cracked up with laughter.

So what really happened that Valentine’s Day night? How plausible was an attack on Ottawa?

It wouldn’t have been the first time that armed raiders had crossed the U.S. border into Canada. There were precedents. Less than fifty years earlier, the Fenians, an Irish extremist group, made a number of military forays into Canada across the U.S. border. The Ottawa Journal also claimed that German sympathizers in the United States had contemplated action against Canada during the early days of the war in 1914, going so far as to set up training bases in the United States with the objective of “making a descent upon Canada to destroy canals and railways” before being told to desist by U.S. authorities. Less than two weeks prior to the supposed air raid on Ottawa, Werner Horn, a German army reserve lieutenant, tried to blow up the Vanceboro international bridge between St Croix, New Brunswick and Vanceboro, Maine in an attempt to disrupt troop movements.

B.E.2c
British B.E.2c, manufactured by the British Air Factor, Vickers, Bristol, circa. 1914

However, an air raid on Ottawa by German sympathizers seems highly unlikely. While on a sharp upward development trajectory, aviation was still primitive in early 1915, the first powered flight having taken place only eleven years earlier. Even at the front in France, airplanes were then mostly used for reconnaissance. Typical of that era, the British military airplane, the B.E.2c, could stay aloft for only three hours.

The most likely explanation is the toy balloon story, combined with a bad case of war jitters. As suggested by one of the newspapers, the searchlight beam that reportedly lit up Brockville could be explained by a fortuitous flash of lightning while the balloons were above the city. However, the fact that the Dominion Observatory was adamant in its view on the wind direction that night fuelled fears that the bombers were real.

Certain modern-day investigators have a whole different explanation—UFOs. The story of Ottawa’s phantom air raid has featured in a number of books on the paranormal, including The Canadian UFO Report: The Best Cases Revealed. To add grist to the paranormal mills, the same night Ottawa prepared for an air raid, strange lights and planes were apparently spotted over other Ontario towns.

Sources:

Colombo, John Robert, 1999. Mysteries of Ontario, Hounslow Press.

House of Commons, 1915. “Reported Appearance of Aeroplanes,” Twelfth Parliament, Fifth Session, Volume One, 15 February.

Rutkowski, Chris & Dittman, Geoff, 2006. The Canadian UFO Report: The Best Cases Revealed, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

The Globe, 1915. “Ottawa In Darkness Awaits Aeroplane Raid,” 15 February.

————————, 1915. “Were Toy balloons and not Aeroplanes!” 15 February.

The Ottawa Journal, 1915. “House To Be Dark Again To-night,” 15 February.

————————, 1915. “Wind From East; Fact That Casts Doubt On Toy Balloon Story; But It Seems Most Likely Explanation,” 15 February.

———————-, 1915. “The Air Raid That Didn’t,” 15 February.

———————–, 1915, “Brockville Statement,” 15 February.

———————–, 1915. “Laughing at Ottawa,” 16 February.

Unikoshi, Ari, 2009. The War in the Air, http://www.firstworldwar.com/airwar/summary.htm.

WFlem72706@aol.com. 2007. “The Phantom Invasion of 1915,” Rootsweb, Quebec-Research Archives, http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/QUEBEC-RESEARCH/2007-04/1176680122.

Images: Statistics Canada. Parliament, 1914. http://www65.statcan.gc.ca/acyb07/acyb07_2014-eng.htm.

British B.E.2c, circa 1914, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Aircraft_Factory_B.E.2.