Willoughby: Valentine’s Day — a different meaning of masks

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Aspen’s first building used for community events like Valentine’s Day balls. Aspen Historical Society Shaw Collection

COVID disrupts Valentine’s Day traditions. You may be celebrating on Zoom, sending digital cards, or sending a delivery via DoorDash. If you meet in person you may be wearing a mask. In the 1880s and 90s Aspen celebrated Valentine’s Day, but mask had a different association.

The earliest mention of the annual event in the Aspen Times was in 1882. In that year Aspen was growing, but men far outnumbered women. The paper marked the day with, “an occasion which shy lovers will take advantage to give expression of their affection by means of sweetly-scented tokens embellished with all the beauty of the engraver’s art.” In 1885 the Times reported the birth of a baby girl on Valentine’s Day commenting, “that was a valentine worth having.”

Beginning in 1888 the day was celebrated with community events. St. Mary’s Guild, of the Episcopal Church, put on a Valentine’s Ball at the Rink Opera House. You might think that since the Wheeler Opera House was named after its builder, Jerome Wheeler, that there was a Mr. Rink. No, it was a roller-skating rink and opera house where there was more roller skating than opera. It was the main community gathering building, built in 1882 by W.C. Corkhill offering plays and entertainment for a few years before skating was added.

A Valentine Ball in 1890, also at the Rink Opera House, was organized by the Silver Legion of No. 11 S.K.A.O.W., known more simply as the Select Knights. As all balls did in those years, it featured dancing with a live orchestra. The highlight of the evening was an exhibition drill by twelve of its members who formed a cross, than a square, then St. Valentine’s Cross and finished by forming a diamond. Their precision was applauded.

The Armory Hall came into use so in 1891 the biggest ball, one with a hundred couples, took advantage of the larger space. Also featuring a live orchestra for dancing what made it different from other annual balls was the Valentine element. When you arrived you were given a card and you signed it, added a note, and designated who should get it. It was delivered to the recipient, but they were not allowed to open them until the end of the evening. Like what often takes place in schools, but this was for adults.

There were competing balls in 1891. The Women’s Assembly of the Knights of Labor staged the Hard Times Ball at their Union Hall. It delivered cards as well, but these were contest prizes for the best lady and gentlemen dancers.

Most of the balls during that period were put on by organizations and often as fundraisers. An 1889 ball at the Rink Opera House was organized as a for-profit event by G.A. Godat. He was well known in the community because he was a dance instructor in an era where if you intended to be in society you were expected to dance. Godat charged $1.50 (about $40 in today’s dollars) for men and $1.00 for ladies. About 100 people attended including a few male guests who came from Leadville to attend.

Godat titled the ball, “Select Choice Masquerade Ball”, and offered to rent costumes to those not inclined to make up their own. Masks were required, the whole event was based on the fun of deceiving those who knew you. Dancing to Professor Ide’s Orchestra began early and then there was a break for the parade where all of the attendees marched around the room in, as the paper reported, “costumes embraced every variety of the beautiful and ridicules.”

At 11:00 they formed a circle and on signal unmasked themselves. The next day the paper reported what each attendee had dressed as, more like today’s Halloween. Wearing a mask was fun – too bad they are not worn with the same sprit in 2021.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at