Love of history spurred volunteers at the McHenry Museum to create Second Saturday, with a history of love chosen for the series’ maiden voyage on Valentine’s Day.
Modesto baseball, the notorious Black Bart, the city’s cruising traditions and other topics will be explored on Second Saturdays to come, all free and held from 2 to 3 p.m. at the museum, 14th and I streets.
Saturday’s event began with a tour of husband-and-wife photos in the museum’s historic lower section, winding up in the valentine display room, where attendees made cards with paper doilies, crayons and chocolate kisses.
Grim-faced photos of 19th-century couples gave perhaps a truer picture of early-day romance in the West, where hard lives often ended early, said docent Diana Loomis.
“You didn’t marry because you were madly in love. You married them because it was a good arrangement,” Loomis said, standing before portraits of Robert and Matilda McHenry. “He needed an heir. He needed someone to keep his house.”
Unsmiling photographs were the norm in the early days of the craft, partly because it was seen as dignified, partly because taking the photo took so long, and partly because most pioneers had terrible teeth, she noted.
Dating did not happen in the Old West. “You met in a parlor with some family members, and the family decided if he was suitable,” Loomis said. Suitable, by the way, included having a way to support a family, being of the same social class and the same religion.
Women who did not agree could be sent to jail or mental institutions, she said. “We can thank the wars, particularly World War II. It changed how women were looked at,” Loomis said.
Romantic notions of Valentine’s Day seem little connected to St. Valentine, who met an ugly end on Feb. 14 in the third century. History is scant on the saint himself, but his feast day coincided with when the birds began mating in Rome, leading to the holiday, said docent Kaye Osborn.
The shorthand of “X” for a kiss came from the days when many were illiterate and unable to write their name. “They signed with an X and gave it a kiss to seal it,” Osborn said.
Saturday’s event came back to modern-day poetry and chocolates, with card-making for a senior citizen facility. Around the museum room were latter-day valentines offering inspiration, including one with a cheery cherub and the poetic plea, “I’m not your Valentine, but gee! The whole world knows I want to be.”
Meet a schoolmarm from the 19th century, the days of inkwells and McGuffey Readers.
The Bee’s own Jeff Jardine will share World War II stories collected from veterans.
Take the Winter Challenge any day. It’s a scavenger hunt through the museum that changes with the seasons.