- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

The Surratt House Museum in Clinton may be linked forever with one of the most tragic episodes in American history, but every February, that changes just a little bit.
The Surratt House earned its place in infamy in 1865 when John Wilkes Booth stopped there for weapons and supplies during his escape from the District after assassinating President Lincoln. Although historians continue to debate her role in the assassination plot, house owner Mary Surratt was tried, convicted and executed by the U.S. government.
Every February, the museum takes a break from all that and is immersed in romance. Call it "Love, Victorian Style."
Officially, the exhibit is called "Greetings of Love," a collection of dozens of Victorian-era valentines and envelopes gathered largely by museum Director Laurie Verge from her family archives. Some of the valentines are even older than that, including one that dates to about 1840.
"As most people are probably aware, we've got kind of a 'murder mystery' atmosphere around here that we're famous for," Mrs. Verge says with a smile. "I wanted to do something a little more upbeat to showcase 19th-century life, and this kind of all came together."
It came together with the help of Mrs. Verge's mother, who got Mrs. Verge started on her collection of Victorian valentines by giving her an 1860 valentine that had been presented by Mrs. Verge's great-grandfather to her great-grandmother.
"It must have worked, because they ended up getting married," Mrs. Verge says. "Valentines that day cost $5 or $6, which was a tremendous amount of money back then."
The card prompted Mrs. Verge to dig through some of her mother's other memorabilia, which was easy because the family has lived in the same house in the Brandywine area since 1862. She found Christmas cards, Easter cards and other holiday cards, and her collection was off and running.
She has added to it over the years, sometimes finding rare Victorian-era valentines in antiques stores and garage sales. Other staff members and volunteers at the Surratt House contributed valentines they found, and the exhibit grew from a one-weekend event to a month-long one because of its popularity.
"Kids are amazed when they see antique valentines like this," Mrs. Verge says. "They are so different from the ones they're used to seeing today at Hallmark."
For instance, Victorian valentines used pastel colors instead of red, which at that time was considered a "hussy color," Mrs. Verge says. Red didn't become a fashionable Valentine's Day color until the 1890s. Also, women never gave men valentines in Victorian times, she adds.
"Only a hussy would do something that forward," she explains.
Victorian valentines also used heavy symbolism, such as clasped hands (for friendship) and tomatoes, of all things.
"Tomatoes were called 'love apples,' " Mrs. Verge says. "Europeans thought they were poisonous, but when [the Europeans] came over here and saw Indians eating them, they changed. So you see a lot of tomatoes on Victorian cards, as well as the usual hearts and cupids."
The exhibit includes a number of valentines produced by Louis Prang, a Prussian immigrant who came to the United States in the 1850s and, according to Mrs. Verge, is "the father of the American greeting card." Mr. Prang specialized in colored lithography, and some of his work is on display at the Surratt House Museum.
The collection also contains many three-dimensional valentines and valentines with moving parts. Mrs. Verge says many visitors are surprised that such cards are not a recent invention.
"They see cards like that, and they can't believe people were sending them back the 1800s," Mrs. Verge says.
Also on display are linen boxes, where Victorian women used to keep the most popular Valentine's Day present of the times linen handkerchiefs.
"Locks of hair were another popular present, dating back even to George Washington's time," Mrs. Verge says. "Men didn't give jewelry as a present to anybody but their wives or fiancees. And lingerie or undergarments were simply unthinkable. I'm afraid Mr. Frederick (of Frederick's of Hollywood) and the Victoria's Secret people wouldn't have had much business back then."

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