In the early 1900s, on the corner of Amberson and Dahlia Avenues in Shadyside, an eclectic Valentine’s Day tradition thrived in the household of a local middle class family. Rather than simply exchange sentiments of love and other holiday pleasantries, the elder members of Shadyside’s Spencer family crafted an annual Valentine Hunt to enthrall and excite their children.
The Spencer family consisted of Charles and Mary Acheson Spencer and their seven children: Adeline, Kate, Ethel, Mark, Mary, Charles, and Elizabeth. The Spencers were among the increasing number of middle class families settling in the East End section of Pittsburgh in the late 19th century.
In her memoir, “The Spencers of Amberson Avenue,” Ethel Spencer recalled with great fondness her family’s annual Valentine’s Day event. Together with the local McClintock, Macbeth, and Acheson children, Ethel and her siblings rifled around the family home in hot pursuit of hidden valentines. Reminiscing about their quest, Ethel remembered, “Valentines hidden under cushions, behind shutters, and in other likely and unlikely places.” For the industrious child toting the most valentines, there awaited a special prize. In the spirit of friendly competition, all the children were ultimately awarded with celebratory ice cream and cake.
Beyond the excitement of the hunt, Ethel also wrote of her fondness for these hidden Valentine’s Day cards. Varying in size, shape, and color, the valentines hidden around the Spencer family home provide a glimpse into the vintage greeting card industry. These hallmark relics of Ethel’s youth can be found in the Detre Library & Archives’ collection of Spencer Family Papers, which include dozens of vintage valentines.
For those interested in learning more about the Spencer Family Papers, the collection’s finding aid is available online through the Detre Library & Archives.
Sierra Green is an archivist with the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.