Valentine’s Day in the Old South

Love and romance are eternal—or at least one would hope. While the tender passions of the heart are a constant in the human condition, the trappings of romance are a product of their time. Wilmington is a city steeped in history, and for many of us City Club’s De Rosset House is a portal into an earlier time. A time when love and courtship were imbued with the genteel flavor of the Old South, when desire was counterbalanced by the sophisticated rules that governed social interaction, particularly between the sexes.

Marriages in the 19th century were carefully negotiated affairs, often conducted by the parents of the young couple. The financial and business affairs of both families were discussed carefully, to ensure that the young lady was marrying a man with a promising future and that the gentleman would receive an appropriate dowry along with his bride. Social class played a role, as women were expected to marry someone of the same social standing or to move up in class. Gentlemen were permitted to marry beneath them if the circumstances were right, but this brought additional complications.

Weddings, too, were formalized. Engagements lasted up to two years, and weddings—particularly for the upper classes—were arranged to the last detail. The goal was to host the “social event of the season”, outdoing one’s neighbors in their own efforts. Weddings were typically held at the church attended by the bride’s family, with a reception to follow in the family home.

To a contemporary 21st century audience, this approach to love and marriage must sound overly formal and restrictive. It was intended as such, with the social conventions and rules designed to maintain propriety in an era of greatly enhanced morality. However, just a love is a universal part of the human experience, so is the inclination of young people to defy the rules. Young couples in love found clever ways to defy the Victorian conventions of their day. Just as we look back on their era with some nostalgia, they in turn looked back to the Middle Ages as a more romantic time. Young lovers in the 19th century employed many of the romantic conventions of that earlier time. A volume of poetry, containing a coded message arranging a clandestine meeting, might be given as a gift. In full medieval tradition, the language of the flowers was another means of surreptitious communication. Each kind of flower was assigned a meaning, and a bouquet arranged in such a way as to convey a specific message. As flowers were common courtship gifts, a young couple could carry on sophisticated conversation under the watchful eyes of their parents.

A few clever tricks, and 19th century courtship takes on an intimacy that might surprise us now. Meetings in secret under the full moon, stealing a kiss during a walk in the garden, confessing love via every medium available–all gave Old South romances a thrill of anticipation lacking in a contemporary world of immediate gratification. Sadly, we cannot experience this ourselves—that part of history has come and gone. However, some hint of its grace remains in the beauty of a Victorian garden or a graceful evening in a candlelight filled dining room. What better way to set the mood than with the trappings of history?

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