No Valentine’s Day

Image, Vintage Valentine's Day Postcard, Dave, Jan. 20, 2007, Flickr, Creative Commons
Dave, "Vintage Valentine's Day Postcard," Flickr, 2007.

On February 21, 1915, the Chicago Tribune ran an appeal to readers for letters describing their experiences falling in love. With the promise of $1 for every letter published, the newspaper asked its audience to describe what attracted them most to their beloved. “Was it a wayward curl, a roguish eye, a dimple or an alluring smile? …Was it the pies she made or the flowers he brought? …Was it the possibility of a eugenic ideal?”

In an era of heightened anxieties about sexual mores and gender roles, eugenics offered the promise of regulating passion and controlling desire so that Americans would only marry and reproduce with “suitable” matches. As Kathy Peiss has documented, white middle class Protestants were concerned about the influence of working class sexual mores like “petting,” “treating,” and “dating” that were becoming fashionable in urban centers.

Newspaper image, Mr. and Mrs. David Allen Gorton, 14 Feb 1913, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, p. 20

“Mr. and Mrs. David Allen Gorton,” , Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, February 14, 1913.

Middle class reformers recoiled in horror as young people danced the Bunny Hug and the Grizzly Bear. Fears about the decline in sexual morality motivated social reform efforts to eliminate prostitution and venereal disease. Eugenics became part of these efforts—a scientific reform movement that offered thoroughly modern solutions to contemporary social problems.

In a cultural moment where many worried that love and courtship had become wanton, depraved, and libidinous, eugenics promised order, efficiency, and control. As The Duluth News-Tribune explained it, eugenics would eradicate the “reckless thoughtlessness of youth” and the “impulsiveness of love-at-first-sight” and replace it with “the wholesome influence of sober and thoughtful conscience in courtship.” Noting approvingly that the “new science of eugenics has therefore been evolved to direct and regulate the force of romantic love,” the article went on to envision a future where young men and women would carry around eugenic certificates that attested to their hereditary and physical fitness.

Some eugenics enthusiasts put these principles into practice. David Allen Gorton was an 82-year-old doctor who was so enthralled with eugenics that he married a woman purely based on her presumed fitness.

Cartoon, Scientific Eugenics Versus the Old Fashioned Love Germ, Image provided by author

“Scientific Eugenics Versus the Old Fashioned Love Germ”

American newspapers heralded him as the father of “eugenic twins,” and he used his public platform to declare that Valentine’s Day would no longer be celebrated in the future. Pronouncing the end of “love as we know it” in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, he declared the dawn of a “higher love which will be born of the logical mind and not of the fluttering heart.” Romantic love, he declared, “leads to ill-considered unions and so is responsible for all the pauperism, for all the disease, and for all the crime that burdens the world.” Certainly not lacking in confidence, he predicted that “the breeding of children under a regime of scientific love, rather than a regime of redheart, paper lace love, will solve all our great social problems.”

However, romantic love also had its passionate defenders, who questioned the role of scientific authority in making such personal decisions. One man complained in an anonymous editorial featured in the Olympia Daily Recorder that, “The professors of the new science of eugenics would have us believe that the custom of marrying for love is a mistake.” However, he insisted that based on his observations, “the choice of a wife on philosophical principles is most certain to end in failure.” Rather than listening to so-called experts, he argued that a man should trust his instincts. Newspaper cartoonists, too, resisted and mocked Progressive era experts. In one illustration, the professors of eugenics try in vain to make a perfect match, but are thwarted by good old-fashioned love that is haphazard and unpredictable.

For these detractors, Cupid’s arrows were preferable to a scientist’s cold calculation. Ultimately, romantic love proved far more resilient than eugenics enthusiasts predicted. However, the search for scientific love matches still persists today, from blood type dating in Japan to eHarmony’s patented Compatibility Matching System. One hundred years later, many are still seeking a logical love in the hopes that it will guarantee health and happiness.

Chicago Daily Tribune 21 February 1915: D6.

“No Valentine’s Day in Future.” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, PA) 14 February 1913: 20.

Peiss, Kathy. “Charity Girls and City Pleasures.” OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 4 (2004): 14-16.

“The Science of Eugenics.” Duluth News-Tribune 15 July 1906: 6.

“Scientific Marriage—Love is of Little Importance,” Olympia Daily Recorder 2 January 1909: 3.

Susan Rensing

Susan Rensing is an Assistant Professor of History and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She is currently working on a book project that analyzes how the science of eugenics was used to reconceptualize romantic love, reproduction, and the institution of marriage in the early 20th century and how resistance to these changes motivated a backlash to first-wave feminism in America. Find out more about Susan Rensing.

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