By Bobbi Spiker-Conley
On February 14, 1906, Gay Zinn teasingly asked her boyfriend, Jake, “Have you rec’d any Valentines yet? I have rec’d one of the horribelest [sic] looking things you ever saw.”
I agree with Grandma. When I first peered into the envelope, I expected to pull out a sturdy, folded card, perhaps laced in a doily, with some romantic prose in beautiful calligraphy. Nope. My initial reaction upon reading the so-called valentine was open-mouthed disbelief.
Playful and cheeky. A fond dig in the ribs. Slightly risqué and humorously delivered. These sassy Valentine cards were called “mock,” “satirical,” “comic,” or “vinegar” valentines. Featuring a crudely drawn caricature and a short poem that, instead of offering a message of love and affection, rather insulted the recipient, setting a tone that ranged from a gentle jab to bitter aggressiveness. Cheaply made, these cards were printed on one side of a single sheet of thin paper, and cost only a penny.
Pictured here are the valentines from the box of courting letters that Jake and Gay sent to one another. (There could have been many more. Who knows?)
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, portions of the “courting letters” read like this:
Jake: “Well, Gay, are you as fleshy as you was last winter? I am getting as fat as a pig and just feel fine and dandy.”
Gay: “No, I don’t weigh but 15 pounds what I did last winter. This time I would like to see you if you are so fat.”
Jake: “[My friend and I,] we got a bet up, which was the heaviest, and we went and got weighed. We both just weighed the same and then thought of wrestling, but we did not.”
Gay: “I hope you will come back soon. See, I would like to see my dollie (Gay’s pet name for Jake) and to see if you have grown any. If you weigh as much [as your friend,] you must be growing. I weigh nearly as much as I did last winter.”
Jake signing off: “When you see a pig climb a tree, pull his tail and think of me.”
Gay: “Received your letter this morning and was truly glad to hear from you. And such a nice, sweet one too, ha ha. I have been having more trouble than a rabbit in the last week. I will tell you all about it when I see you. I rode my colt this evening for the first time. I went over to the barn and Pa helped me catch it. He thought I was just going to pet it and he went over in the meadow to feed the cattle. When he came back, I was riding him. I got my saddle and put it on him and led him around awhile. Then I finally succeeded to get it up to an old sled over there and jumped on. At first, he forgot which end his head was on and went the wrong way, but I gave him a little whip and got him going right, and then he went too fast, but he couldn’t get me off. He stood on his hind feet once. Pa looked funny when he came back and saw me on him.”
Jake: “Gay, you must be careful and not get throwed off of your colt and get your neck broke, for you know that it is too short to tie.”
Gay: “You wondered what I was doing Sunday. I will tell you. I was a bad girl and broke the Sabbath by skating on the ice all forenoon…And at two o’clock I went to preaching, and in the evening, I caught up my colt and rode him. Rubber necks ain’t easily broken so I am not uneasy…This kind of weather just suits me. I love ice and snow. And you will be an old maid tomorrow (Jake’s birthday is February 8. He turned 25 that year.) That is too bad. I wish you was out here and I would cut a hole in the ice and put you in.”
Jake: “Well, Gay, I broke the Sabbath today. I went to Sunday School this morning and then went skating this afternoon. So, you see that I cannot say anything to you for skating on Sunday. Oh, how I wish you could have been here to have been my partner…I will come to see you the twenty fourth. That is, if you don’t refuse to let me come. But if you knew how bad that I wanted to see you, you won’t hinder me from coming.”
Gay: “Have you received any Valentines yet? I have received one of the horribelest looking things you ever saw. Mama got one Saturday. My but it is a peach…I bet you don’t want to see me as bad as I want to see you…You don’t know how much I wished for you last Thursday, your birthday. We were cutting ice to put up and we had the nicest pool of water to put you in. I thought of it and laughed. They asked me what I was laughing about, and I said, oh nonsense…I am one of the worst girls I bet you ever saw.”
Jake: “I went and got another Valentine and sent it yesterday and I hope you won’t get mad and send it back, ha ha. It is lots nicer than the other was anyway. I think it is not often I send a Valentine then write and tell it, but under the circumstances I thought it best to tell you. Of course I will forgive you. How could a fellow help forgiving a sweet a girl as you, even if she does make mistakes. Any one is just as apt to make mistakes as you are. Of course, I won’t tease you for you know that I don’t do that, ha ha. I did get one nice valentine. It was a beaut and some of the horribelest things you ever saw.”
I needn’t have been horrified by the unflattering cards. As I would soon learn, the sarcasm and self-depreciation were components of a shared “inside joke.” Scripted in the courtship letters, their quirky senses of humor played out like a romantic comedy.
Jake: “You said that Henry was spanking Fay (Gay’s brother-in-law and sister.) Do you suppose that I will ever have to spank you? Ha. Ha. If I do, it will be just in fun for you know that I could not get mad at you, but you do get mad at me once and a while, don’t you sweetheart?”
Gay: “I told him I didn’t believe it and he said he reckoned I never would quit my sass.”
Jake: “I think the little girls made a very good choice in choosing you as their Sunday School teacher for I know that you are a good girl, although you have a very high temper. But you are going to control that for my sake? The reason I ask that is because I have such a temper of my own. Ha. Ha.”
Gay: “Oh, don’t talk of my temper. I have been losing it so much lately that I think I will certainly lose it all and get rid of it. Ha. Ha. PS – The funniest thing happened to me today. An old lady asked me if I was acquainted with a Mr. Peg out about Harrisville, and I know she meant [Mr.] Spike, but she got the name mixed up. I told her I didn’t know anyone of that name and she seemed to think I was just fibbing. She was so positive about it. I almost laughed myself sick. It was too funny. Ha Ha.”
Jake: “Well, I should think it was funny for that old woman to think that you had a peg. She was not very far wrong. There is not much difference in a spike than a peg, ha ha. It was awful funny, or at least I thought so. I just laughed and laughed when I read your letter. You said you nearly died laughing. It surely would be a nice death, but I am awful glad that you did not die.”
Gay: “Oh, Jake, J.E.S. and I had a quarrel. What do you think of that for a sample? I hope he won’t fall out the next time we see each other. I suspect I am too high strung for my own benefit, don’t you?”
Jake: “I think that it is too bad that you had a quarrel…I suppose it will be my turn next. I hope not, don’t you? You said you thought you was too high strung for your own good. I don’t hardly think you are. A girl has to be high strung with something.”
Gay: “You ought to of saw the colt. Threw me off in the mud. I bet you would of laughed. I was a muddy sight for the mud was over my shoe tops. He was wanting to run and play, and I was holding him as he jumped two or three times and whirled, and the saddle turned and off I went…They say the colt isn’t safe for me to ride by myself but I ain’t afraid of him. He can’t any more than kill me.”
Jake: “It is now ten minutes till 4 o’clock pm. I have just returned from work. I received your letter as I came in and now, I am trying to answer it but sorry to hear that your horse threw you in the mud. I’ll bet I would have laughed to see you all covered with mud. But I would not have laughed if I thought you were hurt. My dear, you must be careful. I won’t want to be left a widower for I know there is not another girl that would have me. Ha. Ha.”
They were quick to admit their own shortcomings and quick to forgive the other’s wrongdoings. And they did it with humor. It seems they found in one another a perfectly flawed partner. Next month we will explore more of their love story, including their first date and perhaps their first kiss. Be sure to pick up the newspaper when you return here, to the Spiker Gathering Place.
Or go back to the very beginning of the series — turn to the November 2020 edition of the Spiker Family Gazette.