50,000 Love Letters: Valentine's Day in Nebraska

A carton of Valentine's Day cards and letters waits in the Valentine, Neb. post office to be stamped with a special postmark before being re-mailed in time for the holiday. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Valentine, Neb. resident Helen Donovan stamps her Valentine's Day letters with "Heart City" stamps as part of the town's Valentine Cachet program. The letters will be mailed out with a special postmark. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Every February, Valentine, Neb. hosts its Valentine Cachet program. People from around the world send in pre-addressed Valentine's Day cards and letters, which are then stamped and given a special "Heart City" postmark before being sent on their way. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Participants in the sixth annual Love on the Run event in Lincoln, Neb. type up love letters on antique typewriters. The notes are then put into tiny bottles and delivered to loved ones on Valentine's Day. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
One of the typewriters used for Love on the Run, an annual Valentine's Day event in Lincoln, Neb. hosted by letterpress and paper mill Porridge Papers. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Handmade bags await tiny love letters at the annual Love on the Run event in Lincoln, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
More than 500 love letters were delivered as part of the sixth annual Love on the Run event in Lincoln, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Participants at Love on the Run, an annual Valentine's Day event in Lincoln, Neb., get their picture taken. The photo, along with their typewritten love letter, will be delivered today. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
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February 14, 2013 - 6:30am

It’s Valentine’s Day, and people are scrambling for a special way to convey their feelings.  As more and more personal communication takes place digitally, the rituals of romantic relationships in America are changing. But in Nebraska, some traditions are harder to stamp out.


The clickety-clack staccato of typewriters greets visitors to Porridge Papers in Lincoln, Neb. on a recent Saturday morning.

“Oh my gosh!” gasps Jhoni Kucera, giggling, as her fingers haphazardly jab the keys. “I should be good at this at my age, but I’m not!”

Kucera is one of hundreds of people who popped by the annual “Love on the Run” event. The paper mill and letterpress studio was bursting with cheer and warmth as DJs spun ’50s-era soul and doo wop, volunteers whirled fluffs of cotton candy and doves in cages cooed inquisitively. Everything was dressed in pink hearts and red ribbon, and flowers in vibrant hues of magenta and purple adorned the tables.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Love on the Run is an annual Valentine's Day event held at Porridge Papers in Lincoln, Neb.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Gettin' Hipper Fun Bunch spins music at the sixth annual Love on the Run event in Lincoln, Neb.

In the midst of all this, Kucera was typing a love letter for her husband, Bruce.

Or, at least, she was trying.

“I remember typing on an old typewriter, but it’s different, because we get used to texting and using our computers and so, now it seems so funny,” she said ruefully. “And you run off the paper, and you forget to go down to the next line, you forget to capitalize, and there’s no spellcheck!”

She laughed again, undaunted by the overextended sentences careening off the edge of her paper.

Kucera’s playful struggle is sort of a symbol of how times have changed when it comes to love and dating in America. Every year around Valentine’s Day, newspapers and magazines dutifully push stories about how personal interactions have become so impersonal, so detached. Digital communication is tolling the death-knell of romance, they say.

“I really don’t think that’s true, in a lot of ways,” said Dawn Braithwaite, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studiesrituals and communication in personal relationships. “I think people are expressing it differently.”

On the whole, Braithwaite said, romantic rituals have been decreasing in American culture.

“I was born in the ’50s,” she said. “I was raised to expect girl-boy parties when I was sixteen, and being pinned … and even by the time I was a young person or a college student, most of this was gone.

“Now, I think it truly is gone.”

But different doesn’t necessarily mean worse, Braithwaite added. We’re actually communicating more than ever - we’re just doing it in a stream of snippets, like texts and emails, rather than long, hand-written soliloquies. 

And the culture of technology has resulted in new rituals: one of the first things many couples do after getting married, for example, is change their Facebook relationship status. 

On the other hand, this ubiquity of communication – and the ease of making contact – can result in uniformity. It’s hard to make one particular text stand out when you’ve already exchanged more than 3,000.

“One thing people may think about, whether they’re sending someone digital messages or whether they’re face to face or whether they’re writing letters, is how do you help somebody feel important?” Braithwaite said. “How do you make them feel important and special, chosen? Believing that you’re not sending these messages to five other people? “

Porridge Papers owner Christopher James said that’s the point of Love on the Run.

“Obviously, Valentine’s (Day) is a special day for people, whether it’s romantic or just letting a friend know you care about them,” he said. “And there’s just something about coming in and having to write what you want, instead of buying a card or sending a quick text telling someone you’re thinking about them. I think there’s a lot more sentiment in this, and it means a lot more to somebody.”

He recalled one letter-writer in particular who went the extra mile – or, more accurately, about 6,700 extra miles.

“This is kind of the one that always sticks with us,” he said. Three or four years ago, “there was a soldier serving in Iraq, and his girlfriend lived in Lincoln. He got a hold of his girlfriend’s best friends, and wrote a note, and gave it to the best friend, who came down here and typed a note, from him, to send to her. And that kind of touched us.”

An estimated 500 people composed letters this year, which are being delivered today; skip five hours northwest into Nebraska’s Sandhills, and the number of Valentine’s Day letters shoots up a bit - to around 50,000.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Arlene Paulson, postmaster for Valentine, Neb., stamps love letters that have arrived in the Sandhills town from all over the world, part of the Valentine Cachet program. They'll be re-mailed with one of the city's special stamps, and a "Heart City" postmark.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

A postcard from Loveland, Colo. to Valentine, Neb. is on display at the Valentine Post Office.

 

Just ask Arlene Paulson, the postmaster for the city of Valentine, Neb.

“Well, there you have barbed wire,” she said with a laugh, describing some of the stamps used at the post office for Valentine’s Day mail. “And you’ve got a post, with some hay growing up the sides of it, and it says, ‘From the heart of the Sandhills.’”

Known as the Heart City, Valentine is an epicenter of sorts for modern-day love letters. Paulson said the post office expects to receive around 50,000 pre-addressed letters and cards this month, which are then re-mailed with a special Valentine’s Day postmark. The program started more than 60 years ago, and these days, letters arrive from all over the country – and the world - as well as from their own backyard.

Helen Donovan of Valentine is stamping a set of envelopes on a recent Thursday afternoon.

A reporter asked how long she’d been mailing the special valentines.

“Oh, probably since they started. 1960, 1965 …”

She chuckled.

“A lot of years.”

Donovan said the Valentine Cachet program allows her to send something special to her family and friends – something different.

What really makes those letters different from, say, an email, is the effort involved, according to Paulson.  “The person that you’re sending it to can see the effort that you’ve put into it. To take the time to write a letter out, or a card, or sign something … it’s a little touch from one person’s heart to another.”

There’s one family – neighbors of her daughter in Michigan - to whom Donovan never fails to send a card.

It’s because of their last name.

A valentine, from Valentine … to the Valentines. 

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