YOUR HISTORY: The sweet smell of love

Modern society outdoes itself during the month of amour. Ads and store shelves seduce shoppers’ senses with items to serenade one’s sight or smell, tantalize one’s touch or taste in the name of love.

Handwritten love cards can be traced as far back as the 15th century and printed cards were popular by the 1900s. Today, it is estimated that the card industry is a billion dollar business.

And there are many gift ideas in addition to giving a card. Would pioneers have saved up money to buy their special one a Valentines gift? We can only speculate while considering the everyday reality of a settler. With an average pay of 25 cents per hour, money was scarce and spent with discretion. Because of this, a scented or savoury present would too be greatly appreciated during a time when such treats were, well, treats.

For example, bathing was both a laborious chore and a huge luxury. Cold water would be brought in via a water pump or carried in buckets, then heated on a wood-burning stove. First to hop in the tin tub were the men of the family, then the women and finally the children from oldest to youngest — all using the same bath water.

Their soap was not infused with every flora possible, as it is today. The lye soap was homemade with fireplace ash and animal fat. Despite Sunlight selling the first pre-cut soap in 1884, and a number of later companies producing scented soaps, many people still continued to make their own. Therefore, a gift of bottled Witch Hazel with Violet Perfume — which, according to the 1908 Sears Roebuck catalogue, promised cleansing properties while leaving an “exquisite odour of violets” — would likely been a lovely thought.

Eastman’s Eau De Cologne, a fresh mixture that helped mask any displeasing odours in a room, such as from a chamber pot, would have been a practical and special offering.

As laundry was a day’s work, clothes would usually be washed once a week. A suitable love token might be a Wood Violet Talcum, which the gentlemen would appreciate, or a jar of Fine Almond Lotion for the ladies, both claiming to leave the person enveloped in sweet perfume.

Purchasing bouquets of flowers was not a pioneer possibility. Collecting a handful of wild flowers on the way home was a much more likely activity. When the flowers began to wilt, they would be quickly tied up and hung to dry for potpourri satchels. Tucked in drawers and wardrobes, the scent would overpower any muskiness on clothes.

Then there were the sweet and savoury ways of telling someone you care. For 31 cents, you could purchase a two and a half-pound box of Italian Cream Candy while a chocolate bar would be about 3 cents. Such delectable treats were a novelty and would have been even more enjoyable when shared with a sweetheart.

Lastly, perhaps the most treasured gift of all: time spent together — a waltz to a gramophone, a cup of tea while sitting on the porch or taking an after-dinner stroll along King Edward’s wooden sidewalks.

Perhaps, when speaking about love, times have not changed so drastically.


Your History is a column in which, once a month, representatives of the Tri-Cities’ three heritage groups writes about local history. Sandra Isabel Martins is the museum co-ordinator at Mackin House Museum, which is operated by the Coquitlam Heritage Society.



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