Every year in February, grocery stores splatter their aisles with pink and red hearts, Cupids and arrows. The holiday comes from ancient Roman tradition and for many today, Valentine’s Day is a time to express love toward significant others, friends and family.
This February, people across the country will be trading boxes of chocolates, sweet candies with affectionate messages and cards with Justin Bieber’s face surrounded by hearts. That wasn’t always the case. In the 20th century, Valentine’s Day love was expressed with the tradition of cards that were riddled with racism and stereotypes.
Harvey Young has some of these cards. The professor at Northwestern University in Chicago is the chair of the school’s theater department and has done extensive research regarding theater and race. He began collecting racist Valentine’s Day cards just a few years ago and has since amassed a collection that tells the story of an era where racism existed in standard holiday tradition. Real Change spoke to him about how he began the collection and what he has learned from the cards.
How did you find these cards to begin with and what was your initial reaction to them?
I went to an auction actually. In the midst of all the cars and objects and pictures, there were a few Valentine’s Day postcards, and one side of the postcard were these dialect heavy, stereotypical representations of black people. That’s what interested me. I purchased some of the cards there at the auction and I began to learn more about the history of Valentine’s Day and the history of Valentine’s Day cards and how these caricature cards were very popular in the late 19th century.
I think I was surprised, simply because you would not think that a person would send essentially a racist caricature to a person they love for Valentine’s Day. What I realized when I thought about it and sort of looked more into it was that it basically showed how prevalent racism and stereotypes were at the time. You wouldn’t necessarily think twice about sending such cards.
Back then it wasn’t shocking at all. Department stores and stationery stores would have these elaborate displays, these cardboard cutout figures of drawings of young black children. In the same way that for Christmas you would see large cut outs that are holiday-themed of Santa, in this case you would see large cutouts of stereotypically drawn young black children. The fact that you could walk into the equivalent of Walgreens and see these large life-sized cutouts really gives you a sense of how accepted and prevalent and non-shocking they were at the time.
What do the cards depict? Were they targeted towards African Americans only or other communities of color?
Some of them are images with text in this heavy dialect, where you have to look at it a few times to make sense of it because it’s such a heavy dialect transcribed on the card. But then you also have these other ones that had these misshapen figures with exaggerated lips and the skin tone is darker in a way that borrows some of the aesthetic from blackface performance which was also popular in the late 19th century. And then you get a lot of references to things like watermelons. It’s a combination of dialect, stereotypical images, blackface in some form and these associations with popular stereotypes.
The cards that are most popular were caricatures of African Americans. Those were the ones that sold all over the country and were the most popular among the consumers. That being said, there were caricature cards of other ethnic groups and there were cards that mocked women’s suffrage. Even with Valentine’s Day happening, there was this branch of Valentine’s Day cards creation that lent itself towards the less positive and more of the emotions during the time as well. But in terms of numbers, the caricatures of Black Americans were the most common.
These are obviously shocking images now. Who bought them, and what were the reactions to the images then?
What we know is that — and this is what we know from looking at newspaper articles that were published in various years across the 1900s on Valentine’s Days — it’s pretty clear that these caricature cards were the most popular cards that were purchased for about 20 to 30 years, much more so than any other cards. At the first level we know we’re talking about the type of cards that the most people purchased, and knowing that tens of thousands were sent across each major city across the country, so we know that these were extremely popular.
Who purchased them gets a bit more difficult. I have a lot of cards that were actually posted, so I can see that one person in Nebraska, for example, would mail the card to her cousin in Vermont. I know that these cards traveled. They didn’t just stay within a town or a city. My sense, based on the cards that I have, is that it essentially was white middle class Americans all over the country — and the cards also circulated around London as well.
You’ve spoken about the need to apply performance art language to these cards and how when doing that, they enable “race play.” Can you expand on this a bit more?
When the cards circulated, blackface performance was really really popular. In the early roots it was white actors putting on black makeup and then performing this heavy dialect and stereotype of the comical African American. People would go to the theaters and see it, and you would see it on film as well. Al Jolson, in “Mammy,” he’s in blackface. The cards have a really thick dialect and you have to sort of read it again and again to make sense of what it is, and the cards make you perform the caricature. In order for it to make sense to you at all, you have to actually perform those words yourself and give it voice and that’s what it is.
Because otherwise you look at it and you’re like, “L-U-B,” what’s “lub?” But you have to imagine it. And the person who has the card is really sort of getting into this performance and giving it their all to mimic their impression of these black stereotypes.
That’s what the cards did, and that’s the power of the dialect on these cards. They forced you to roleplay to make sense of it, otherwise they don’t make any sense.
How did the practice decline?
They were really popular up until the mid-1930s. It’s not really clear why it declined. On the holiday and every year there’s a bunch of newspaper articles about Valentine’s Day in the same way that today there is lots of news coverage on the arrival of Christmas. The sense is that by the 1930s, journalists and card sellers were beginning to understand that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing to have these cards circulate broadly. It was not a positive way of celebrating the holiday to invite people to use these caricatures as a part of their Valentine’s Day celebrations. So that happened.
By the time you get to the 1940s and ’50s, you get the increased rise of the Civil Rights Movement. But even in the 1920s, you were having this increased activism around civil rights and I think that sort of led to its decline. Retailers understood that they should not sell those cards, and once they did that, the market fell out. It’s often retailers that are the most politically correct — retailers will be the first to stop selling the items because of associations with negative racial history. Wal-Mart, for example, decided to no longer sell the [Confederate] flag after a series of public outcries on whether or not it’s important to even display the Confederate flag.
There’s a way in which retailers sense the public mood and responded quite aggressively to stop the selling and reprinting of these cards. Even today, if you go to the Hallmark Greeting Card Museum, they will not give anyone access to the caricature cards they created.
That’s a whole part of their history that they are not going to respond to requests about their postcards.
How do the cards fit in the context of other commodities and commercial racism at the time?
If you think about it in context, in the late 19th century, there were tons of racist products you could buy: the “mammy” salt and pepper shakers, the blackface caricature money bank. Those images proliferated. They were all over the place, which is why the cards themselves were not objectionable in any way. It was just one of many representations of black people as caricature that was popular in that time period. All those things also fade; they go away by the mid-20th century. We don’t see those anymore. Those Valentine’s Day cards were a part of a large culture of racist caricature display that just disappeared, and people began to disassociate themselves.
What has the reaction been as you share this dark history of what many think of as an innocent holiday?
On one level, people are surprised to find out that racism could be embraced as a part of a Valentine’s Day celebration.
I think that’s a big surprise. The other big surprise is that it happened in the 20th century. The idea that in 1930, people were purchasing these cards and they were the most popular cards is shocking because for a lot of people they have some connection to that year. It could be a parent or grandparent. When you start thinking of it that way, the idea that a parent or grandparent could have been a person who received or purchased these cards, that is when it becomes really unsettling.
It’s a lot easier to think about race and racism in history when it affects a generation with which you have very little association, like a great-great-grandparent.