Will you be my 18th century Valentine?

It’s recently been estimated that Americans spend $19.5 billion on Valentine’s Day. Whether you go all in or prefer to recast the holiday as “Singles Awareness Day,” people have been baring their heart and soul through love notes for centuries. In early America, as long as quill, ink, and paper were on hand — one could grant Cupid the opportunity to strike.

Dr. Anna Maria Barry has traced the history of giving and exchanging Valentine’s cards back to the eighteenth century when hand-crafted tokens of affection first appeared. Eventually these gave way to printed versions, but some early valentines were intricate creations like the “puzzle purse” valentine shown below.

Early hand-made puzzle purse Valentine, c.1790

In my own research on the families of Scots who settled in early North Carolina, I’ve seen expressions of love — some tender, some gushing. These tend to show up in correspondence between spouses or courting couples. One of my favorites is a poem written by a smitten James Iredell to Hannah Johnston. Iredell writes:

In what soft language shall my soul convey

It’s dreams by night, and anxious cares all day,

To her, the object of my fond desires,

To call my wife whom my proud heart aspires;

In whom each female excellence we view,

The just decorum of the happy few,

Possessed of elegant angelic minds,

Where truth with goodness, grace with virtue shines.

May you, the dearest mistress of my love,

No more the pangs of dire affliction prove,

But ev’ry day and ev’ry hour employ

Some new occasion for a rising joy:

And might the penner of this wish impart

The rapt’rous feelings of his faithful heart,

He’d hope to share the bliss, which you possess,

And being blest, have some sweet pow’r to bless.

James Iredell c. 1772

While Iredell’s attentions were eventually returned, courtship wasn’t an easy process and it didn’t simply come down to the decision of two lovebirds. Courtship in the eighteenth century was most definitely a family (and arguably, communal) affair. Iredell and Johnston’s was even fraught with the complication of a love triangle!

Hannah Johnston and her family moved in some of the highest social circles of Edenton, North Carolina. She was the daughter of the late Samuel Johnston Sr., a well-known planter, and had received a desirable inheritance upon his death. Her brother, Samuel Jr., was an established attorney in Edenton and Hannah spent much of her time in his household. Any young man would be lucky to have her hand in marriage for it held the attraction of money, as well as social standing in the early Carolina elite.

One of these young men was a newly-minted English baronet, Sir Nathaniel Dukinfield, who had recently entered the landed gentry of England after inheriting his uncle’s title. Dukinfield had grown up in North Carolina and his widowed mother (now remarried) often spent time with the Johnstons and their cousins. It was not long before the young baronet made clear his intentions toward Hannah Johnston.

Dukinfield was also best friends with a virtually-penniless, but well-situated attorney-in-training: James Iredell. Apprenticed to Hannah Johnston’s brother Samuel, what James Iredell lacked in financial stability he made up for in connections. Unfortunately for Nathaniel Dukinfield, Iredell also held affections for the young Miss Johnston.

When Hannah turned down Nathaniel Dukinfield and, spurned, he sailed for England, James Iredell made his move. Matters of the heart, however, did not concern Iredell and Johnston alone. A marriage had ramifications that could alter economic standing, social status, property holding, and legal matters — not to mention it was heavily influenced by a patriarchal society.

We don’t have Hannah’s own words to understand her side of the story. But perhaps her choice (with her brother’s approval) is evidence of the movement toward companionate marriages in the late eighteenth century.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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