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Becoming Henry Fairfax

By April C. Armstrong *14, Madeline Lea ’16, Allie Lichterman ’16, and Spencer Shen ’16, with special thanks to Megan Chung ’19

April C. Armstrong *14

In a blog post about Princeton’s imaginary community members several months ago, I wrote about Henry Fairfax, a mythical figure who delivered Valentines to freshmen and sophomores in the 1970s and 1980s. After rediscovering him, I had an idea. What if we, as the Princeton University Archives, revived Henry?

Fortunately, the University Archivist (Dan Linke) and Assistant Archivist for Public Services (Sara Logue) were agreeable to my plan. Alongside the rest of the staff in Public Services at the Mudd Manuscript Library (Christa Cleeton, Rosalba Varallo Recchia, and Sara), I designed a Fairfax Valentine for today’s students using a reprint of a Princeton postcard from at least a century before and ordered 250 copies. I then turned to my student employees. We divided the campus into zones where they would take the Valentines, essentially becoming Henry themselves. For four days leading up to Valentine’s weekend, they fanned out across Princeton, slipping in and out of libraries, classrooms, laundry rooms, dining areas, and dormitory common spaces to hide the postcards. The Valentines gave Mudd’s email address in case recipients had curiosity about anything else that might have happened at Princeton and suggested they tweet at us to let us know they’d found them.

Front & back
The front and back of our Fairfax Valentines. The original Valentine postcard we used is from our Historical Postcard Collection (AC045), Box 4.

Responses on Twitter came primarily from the staff of Princeton University, who seemed to appreciate the Valentines at least as much as the students. A curious development I had not anticipated was that students began to send Snapchat messages to the main Princeton University account when they found the cards, highlighting the fact that today’s undergraduates tend to be more comfortable there than on Twitter. Princeton University’s social media strategist, Ryan Maguire, sent me several emails about these Snapchat responses. One student told me afterward that Twitter just seemed too intimidating to use. Nonetheless, we did get some response on Twitter as well, and it looks like students were enjoying Henry’s return to campus.

Another measure of the success of our efforts was a clear uptick in the readership of the “Imaginary Princetonians” blog during the campaign, shown in the chart below. The highest number of hits on that post in a single day occurred on February 11, midway through the student staff’s Valentine-hiding project.

Imaginary Princetonians blog hits chart

I asked this year’s “Henry Fairfaxes” to write about their experiences for today’s blog, answering the question, “What is it like to become Henry Fairfax?” These are their stories.


Madeline Lea ’16

The clock had just hit the 1:20pm mark and the Friend Center Library was beginning to fill with students letting out of their classes. My heart quickened its pace but I tried to keep my walking steady as I headed for the scanner along the back wall on the first floor. This was where I had planned to hide my Valentine—the perfect place to be found by an unsuspecting future scanner. And yet, how would I ever leave it there unnoticed?

I reached my destination and my hand clenched around the stack of Valentines in my pocket. Pink and blue bubbles on the lock screen of the scanner bounced back and forth while the students continued to flow past me. I hesitated, just for a moment. Then I pulled a folder from my backpack, pretended to press the buttons on the screen, and slide a Valentine onto the scanner bed. Nobody looked over. Nobody even changed what they were doing. So, I put away my folder, zipped up my bag and slipped away. Mission complete.

The first thing that surprised me about hiding Valentines was the sheer number of people around campus. Every hidden hallway or classroom that I found seemed to have at least a person or two occupying it, talking to a friend, using the vending machine, making a call. How had I never noticed all of these people before? It was if they had all just appeared overnight and now occupied every nook and cranny of this school making it hum with their activity.

And then the other curious thing was that they really didn’t seem to notice me. There I was dressed in a bright blue winter coat and a hat with a pompom to match, sneaking around slipping Valentines into cabinets, printers, scanners, you name it and no one really gave me another look. I felt like a secret agent invisible among the crowds.

I wondered how people would react when they found one of my cards, how the out-of-place object might stop the flow of their day, if just for an instant.  And I hoped that finding one of these hidden Valentines and the small joy or surprise it might bring would allow people to pause for a moment in their busy lives and wonder about all the activity going on around them.


Allie Lichterman ’16

Steps for a successful Fairfax-ing:

  1. Swipe into Firestone and climb the stairs to the third floor.
  2. Sit down at a carrel, shed your coat, and nonchalantly open your bag. Slip out a Valentine.
  3. Stand up and stretch as if you need a study break while surveying the area for a suitable hiding spot, in plain sight but not enough so that discretely hiding a Valentine is impossible.
  4. Lock into your target; stroll with purpose to a stack just beyond the desired Valentine-drop location, slowing down and placing the card as you pass, never looking down. Continue on and pretend to search for a book.
  5. Return to the carrel and wait and wait and wait.
  6. Watch as an exhausted Princetonian, bags under their eyes and eraser shavings in their hair, looks up for the first time in hours and spots the strange card within arm reach prompting a quizzical look and extended reach to grab it.
  7. Relish the moment when exhausted Princetonian’s face lights up in amusement, confusion, and, hopefully, joy.
  8. Congratulations, Fairfax, you’ve done it again.

Steps for a Fairfax-ing fail:

  1. Swipe into Firestone and climb the stairs to the third floor
  2. Nervous, trip over your own foot causing your backpack to fall to the ground with a thud and prompting glares from all around you. After some more shuffling around, a battle with the rolling chair, and ruffling through every reading you’ve printed since September, finally pull a Valentine out from the bottom of your bag after (hopefully you at least find that lost pset along the way?).
  3. Spin in your chair as you search for a suitable hiding spot.
  4. Lock into your target and speed walk directly there, looking around nervously as you go. Realize an exhausted Princetonian with their nose buried in a book sat down directly next to your desired card-drop location and said Princetonian has looked up and is scowling at you.  Drop the Valentine and mumble something incoherent.
  5. Speed walk back to your carrel.
  6. Watch as the Princetonian reads the card and looks up to shoot pitiful looks your way.
  7. Slowly, a smile spreads across the library goer’s face. It seems to be partially at your expense, partially connected to the Valentine.
  8. Well, Fairfax, you weren’t so discreet, but you made ‘em smile. Job well done?


Spencer Shen ’16

Note: Spencer explains that this is a fictionalized account. A bit of a method actor, Spencer tried to imagine what Henry would have actually been thinking as he hid Valentines. However, he assures me that each scenario does describe the general area where he actually hid the postcard, if not his own motivations for doing so or actual student “targets.” In other words, when Spencer wrote this, he was still writing it as Henry Fairfax. He swears he didn’t really steal anybody’s detergent, though while he was hiding Valentines in the laundry rooms he tried to imagine how Henry would have done it.

princeton nj craigslist > personals > missed connections

Met you at a party in Little

We had a great time at that soiree in the basement. You typed in your number on my phone, but I dropped it in the toilet later that night. I think you were wearing a blue button-up shirt, which I saw in the laundry room yesterday. So I put a card on top of it.

Studied next to you in Dod

You were reading something in tiny print by Foucault. I would have asked you to dinner, but your stack of books was a Maginot Line of literary fortification. Your fatal vulnerability was the need to use the printer, where I swooped in and dropped a card in the tray.

Pianist in Mathey Common Room

You were playing a Chopin sonata at 11 PM again, loudly. I was studying in my pajamas, sleepily. Annoyed and awoken, someone else quickly shooed you off the keys, but I was already entranced. After your ungrateful audience left, I slipped a card under the lid.

Omelette line in Rockefeller dining hall

Spinach, onions, bacon, egg whites; I could not help but ask for the same. I wanted to sit across from you and serendipitously discover our shared affinity for omelettes. But alas, you were working on your computer. I stealthily placed a card in your napkin dispenser.

Foosball fanatic in Holder

Your roommate wins inexorably, but I admire your persistence and you look like you could clobber him in life-sized soccer. Next time he scores on you, you’ll find a card when you reach for the ball.

I stole your detergent in Buyers

But you stole my heart. I brought your Tide back to the laundry room and tucked a card underneath.

Pizza in Joline kitchen

You always had pizza, I always had Hot Pockets. We never uttered more than “hello”, but you were a fellow lover of late night food. After I polished off yesterday’s midnight snack, I left a card in our mutual microwave.


2 responses to “Becoming Henry Fairfax”

  1. The “original” Henry Fairfax actually delivered the valentines to all the Freshmen and Sophomore women under the door of their dorm rooms on Valentine’s Eve. Not getting caught was no easy task!

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