In this Valentine’s Day poem, Cupid promises the holiday’s namesake patron, St. Valentine, that he will search high and low for a most worthy maid to strike with his arrows of love. He comes upon Baltimore City, “Which though for a City ‘tis somewhat slow…Is renowned for its maidens fair,” where he discovers the incomparable Nannie Frick. The fat, little god sends one of his fairies, Puck, to deliver a note to Nannie extolling her greatest virtues. For all its kind words, this sweet valentine is left tantalizingly unsigned, which raises many questions about its author.
While the poem’s author remains mysterious, we know a little bit more about its subject, Nannie. Anne Turnbull Frick was born into a well-off Baltimore family in 1857. She grew up at 1523 Bolton Street in the affluent Bolton Hill neighborhood. Her father, George P. Frick, began his career as a dry goods merchant and worked for some years for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In 1872, he founded the North Baltimore Passenger Railroad Company, a streetcar service, which he ran until he died in 1885. Nannie’s mother, Katherine G. Turnbull, was the daughter of Major William Turnbull, who fought in the Spanish-American War.
Precious few details survive about Nannie’s personal life. It is easy to imagine that she grew up in relative comfort. She and her sisters, Elizabeth P. and Katharine G., were regularly invited to society events, such as debutante balls and society weddings, that received write-ups in the Baltimore newspapers. The girls also received $20,000 each upon the death of Marion Cutting in 1912. Her brothers, William T., Charles, and Oliver O., had similar success. Nannie’s personal papers left at the Maryland Historical Society contain no clues about her social life, only the dull details of settling the estate of a deceased aunt. No mention of even a casual flirtation, nary a clue to the poem’s writer there. She died in 1933, never having married.
Perhaps, the answer to the poem’s writer lies in the fanciful sketches that illustrate the tale of Cupid’s quest to find a most worthy woman. The drawings, while unsigned, yet again, look remarkably similar to the work of Dr. Adalbert J. Volck, a Baltimore artist and dentist. Volck, an ardent Confederate, became known for his scathing illustrations of Union political figures, especially Abraham Lincoln and General Benjamin Butler—in one drawing he portrayed the pair as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The scenes accompanying the sweet cherub’s journey are reminiscent of illustrations he did for programs for Baltimore’s famed Wednesday Club.
Volck may have penned the note to Nannie, not as a potential paramour, but as a sweet note to a young girl. Volck worked as a dentist on Charles Street. An article from The Baltimore Sun about the valentine suggests that Nannie was a patient of the good doctor in the early 1870s. Volck married Letitia Robert Alleyn in 1852, when Nannie was a scant five years old, and had five children. Another possibility suggested by The Sun was that she had befriended one of his children. But it seems a touch unlikely that a dentist with five children of his own and an active social life would spend so much time writing a poem to a young girl. Nannie’s uncle, Frank Frick, like Volck, was very active with the Wednesday Club, and there could lay the connection between them.
The Wednesday Club grew out of meetings of artists and socialites during the 1850s at the home of Frank B. Mayer in Baltimore. They would discuss art, perform musical and theatrical pieces, and socialize with colleagues and friends. The meetings eventually became more formal, moved venues, and became known as the Allston Association. However, the Civil War interrupted most of the association’s gatherings. Many of the group’s members were known Southern sympathizers, and strict laws were put in place against gatherings such as the Allston Association’s. Members were able to continue the Wednesday night musical program at the home of organist and conductor Otto Sutro, thus the Wednesday Club was formed.
Word spread and membership grew, so the club quickly moved out of Sutro’s home. Everybody who was anybody attended Wednesday Club performances. The club threw grand balls where the most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in Baltimore made their debuts. The most prominent members of society performed in plays put on in the club’s new playhouse built by architect George A. Frederick, now known as Albaugh’s Lyceum Theater. At its peak in the 1870s and early 1880s, Nannie would have been entering her late teens and early twenties, the prime age to enter society. It’s possible that Nannie caught the eye of a Wednesday Club member at one of these grand functions, and he requested Volck illustrate his love note. One can imagine Nannie and her sisters prettily dressed up at a Wednesday Club soiree, chatting with other society belles, perhaps giggling over the young men in attendance and sharing the latest gossip.
The true identity of Nannie’s admirer may be lost to time. There are so few facts, and only speculations can be made. But nonetheless, this little piece of history holds a special place in our library and maybe one day, someone might discover the answers.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all of our loyal readers! (Lara Westwood)Transcription of the poem:
King Cupid sat on his golden throneIn Loveland far away His unstrung bow at his feet lay prone And his quiver all full of arrows shone Not one had been used to day. A weary frown sat on his brow With a weary look in his eye His wings so ruffled and dusty now Were enough to make it seem doubtful how Such a fat little God could fly One chubby foot he nursed in his lap With the other tapped softly the floor But he soon slipped off to a gentle nap And alas to record such ungodly mishaps Gave went to an audible snore. But soon with a start King Cupid awoke Sprang up in great dismay By Venus he cried now this is no joke For I fear me I’ll break the promise I spoke About the coming St. Valentine’s Day A short time ago, while taking a stroll About the genuine Champs Elysees I met the rare Saint and over a bowl Of nectar of which we drank the whole We passed a real jolly good day The old Saint told me whilst doing so, A fact I had heard of before, How the mortals who dwell on the earth below Had failed of late that respect to bestow Which their fathers had shown him of yore The fact is, he said with some pious heat The youths of the present day Are so utterly wrapt in their self-conceit That nor age nor custom from them does meet The respect which more brains would display So to soothe him, I promised a trip to take And visit the Earth below And search a maiden for whose sweet sake Even Cupid himself might a Valentine make And on her all Love blessings bestow. That promise I’ve kept and both far & wide Oer all the earth I have flown Though many a maiden fair I’ve spied Each and all had some fault beside That only to me was known Of all but one could stand the test As far as I could see Of every virtue and charm possest Of mortal maidens the fairest and best That mortal maid can be King Cupid paused; then called aloud “Ho! Puck come hither I say!” And quick as lightning out of a cloud, Came laughing Puck from out a crowd Of Fairy Attendants gay. Good Puck, said Cupid, on Earth below In the part called America there Is Baltimore City, you must know Which though for a City ‘tis somewhat slow Is renowned for its maidens fair. One you will find the fairest of all, And to her this missive bear; But, lest some mishap or error befall
You will find the name by which mortals callThis maiden all written there Puck made a salaam, the missive took And has brought it straight to you He had no call to read, for one little look Revealed to him the maiden true Neither on land nor yet on the sea And I’ve searched the wide world o’er Nor passed by a form that was fair to me Nor a heart where purity seemed to be Is a maid to be found to compare with thee Each charm but revealing the more Fairest maid of maidens fair, Rich in all that Youth bestows, Instinct with grace and modest air! Compelled by all thy charms so rare King Cupid thus his homage shows
Sources and Further Reading:
Anderson, George McCullough. The Work of Adalbert Johann Volck (Baltimore: George McCullough Anderson, 1970).
Beers, Henry P., “A History of U. S. Topographical Engineers, 1818-1863.”
Dobbin, Muriel, “An Old Fashioned Valentine,” Baltimore Sun, February 14, 1960.
“James Swan Frick,” in Baltimore: Its History and Its People (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1912), 113.
“The Social Athens of America,” Harper’s Magazine 65 (1882), 20-36.