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EXCERPT: A History of The Love-Lock Custom

In the spirit of Saint Valentine’s Day, celebrated February 14th, we’re pleased to feature an excerpt from “Dating Love: A History of The Love-Lock Custom,” Chapter 1 of Unlocking the Love-Lock: The History and Heritage of a Contemporary Custom by Ceri Houlbrook.

Questing for the origins of a contemporary folk custom is an often futile and fruitless task. It is also not an endeavour favoured by modern-day Folklore Studies, partly because of the difficulties entailed in reaching confident conclusions but also because focus tends to be less on where a custom comes from and more on its state today. However, I am as much a historian as a folklorist, and in or-der to understand the twenty-first-century widespread popularity of the love-lock custom, I maintain that it must be placed within its historical context. After all, no custom emerges entirely out of the blue. Customs are nearly always (one might go so far as to say always) adaptations or borrowings from other periods, cultures or communities. Where, then, did the custom of attaching padlocks to public structures begin? And how did it spread to over 500 locations worldwide? This chapter attempts to answer these questions.

However, compiling a history of love-locking has proved no easy feat. There are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the custom’s international spread, which sees numerous narratives and networks of dissemination, rather than a single, linear thread. The origins of one assemblage are not necessarily the same as the origins of another, neither are the rates of growth, and with at least 500 (but probably thousands of) assemblages worldwide, the establishment of a chronology poses difficulties. Secondly, in light of these difficulties, a range of fictions have been created, adapted and adopted in order to contextualise the custom, most notably by the tourist industry and the media. Rumours are presented as reality, and it has been a complicated task separating fact from fiction. This chapter traces the solid facts, handling the solid evidence, while the shakier evidence (such as the frequent attribution of the practice to a tragic pair of Serbian lovers) and the likely fictions (the casual attribution to an ‘ancient Chinese custom’) will be examined in Chapter Six: Selling Love.

Love-Locking in the 1980

The earliest solid evidence for the mass deposition of padlocks on public structures comes from Europe in the 1980s.1 The best-documented example is in Hungary. In Janus Pannonius Utca in the city of Pécs, close to the historic monuments of Pécs Cathedral and the former mosque Pasha Gázi Kászim, is a fence festooned with love-locks. Art historian Cynthia Hammond, whom we met in the Introduction, confidently dates this assemblage to the 1980s.2 Hammond argues that in order to understand this custom, it must be set within the context of late twentieth-century Hungarian history, when the hold of Soviet social control over the country began to loosen. This control, she asserts, extended to a repression of public displays of romantic love, and the 1980s saw a gradually growing freedom of expression. By the 1990s, it was far more permissible to express romantic relations publicly.

Love-locks were being deposited prior to this though, at a time when the cus-tom would have been frowned upon or even forbidden. Why would the deposi-tors have risked censure and punishment? Hammond theorises a connection with the Punk music subculture permeating the youth scene of Hungary during this period. During the 1970s, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols adopted the padlock as a symbol, wearing one around his neck on a chain. The padlock therefore became, in Hammond’s words, ‘a forceful symbol of resistance, dissent, and art against convention’.3 Hammond does not believe it was a coincidence that within a few years of the padlock becoming a symbol of the Punk movement people had begun attaching them to the fence in Pécs. Despite the Pécs love-locks’ controversial origins, by 2007 the fence had become part of the city’s heritage and repackaged as a tourist destination (see Chapter Six: Selling Love).

Another example of the mass deposition of padlocks on a public structure was in Merano, an Alpine town in northern Italy. From the 1980s until 2005, it was a local custom for Italian soldiers undertaking their military conscription in Merano to celebrate the end of their service by locking the padlock from their barracks locker to the Ponte Teatro in the town centre. They would often in-scribe the lock with their period of military service and the name of their military company.4 Local authorities tolerated the practice, removing the locks only when the balustrade began overflowing. The custom died out with the ending of obligatory conscription and the closure of the Merano military complex.5 Also in Italy, graduates of the San Giorgio hospital academy similarly attached the padlocks from their lockers to a bridge in Florence at the end of their training.6

Interestingly, none of these examples appear to have originally been about declaring romantic attachment – in fact, as Richter and Pfeiffer-Kloss observe, the Italian customs celebrated regained freedom7 – although the Pécs assem-blage did develop an amorous element over time. It would take over a decade for other sites to host the custom with an explicitly romantic colour, and again these appear quite isolated. The love-locks on Jade Peak of the Yellow Mountains, China, for example, are believed to have appeared in 1999/2000, possibly leading to dissemination in the Far East (see Chapter Six: Selling Love). However, it was not until the 2000s that the custom gained global popularity – spurred by a teenage romance novel.


The History and Heritage of a Contemporary Custom

Ceri Houlbrook

Explores the worldwide popularity of the love-lock as a ritual token of love and commitment by considering its history, symbolism, and heritage.

About the Author:

Ceri Houlbrook attained her doctorate in Archaeology from the University of Manchester, and is a lecturer in Folklore and History at the University of Hertfordshire. Her primary research interests are contemporary folklore and the material culture of popular customs and beliefs. She has published previously on the British phenomenon of coin-trees and the history and folklore of concealed objects.

Read another blog post by author Ceri Houlbrook: LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID