Will you be my Valentine?

Valentine: noun. Defined as ‘card sent, often anonymously, on St Valentine’s Day, 14th  February, to a person one loves or is attracted to’ or a ‘person to whom one sends a valentine card or with whom one is romantically involved.’  The origin of the word is late Middle English denoting a person chosen, possibly by lots, as a sweetheart or special friend.

To receive a Valentine is special, it shows you a person has chosen you and cares for you.  Today we cynically scoff that it is a modern holiday created solely for card companies to make bags of money post-Christmas. We are slightly wrong.  The first Valentines were being spoken and sung during the Middle Ages and the first written Valentine, written as early as the 1400s, now resides at the British Museum.

Many famous names, plays and events have been attributed to starting the tradition of Valentines: it has been a Pagan, Roman, Christian, Catholic and secular festival celebrated across the world.

Across Europe paper Valentines were exchanged in place of gifts, this sending of paper Valentines was particularly popular in England.  It wasn’t until the 1800s when the card industry we recognise today began to emerge that factories began to assemble hand painted cards specifically for February 14th.  Quickly techniques were developed to create hand-finished cards with lace and ribbons.  So popular a tradition it became that card making kits to assemble at home were developed.  By the end of the 1800s cards were able to be entirely produced by machine.  By 1900 the tradition of personally hand delivering your Valentine was less common as postage costs had become affordable and delivery more reliable.

3D cards, pop-up cards, Rebus cards, emotional maps, scented card and cards with hidden jokes.  They sound like very modern design ideas, but these are all examples of 19th century Valentines Cards.  From our Victorian Valentines card collection here at Bath Library, a select few have been put out on display.  Beautifully designed and crafted cards that look fresh and in today’s market could sold with a ‘vintage twist’.

Rebus Valentines Card No. 209

Alongside acrostics and riddles, the Victorians loved using wordplay.  This is a rebus Valentine where some of the syllables have been replaced by pictures – some of it is not unlike modern ‘text-speak’, a thoroughly modern card if in the old vernacular.

Rebus Card No. 209 part of the Bath Library Victorian Valentine Collection

My deer friend/ O can U read my heart four if U/ can it is ‘ay book where-inn/ U may find how much eye love U/ Eye dare knot cannot Tell how deer/ U R two me butt if A constant heart U/ seek O ‘ear eye offer it ‘ay faith/fool heart ‘and hand two thee ‘and/ Love is awl eye have to give butt that is thine ‘and fourever/ Yours deerest four awl time

My dear friend,

O can you read my heart, for if you can it is an open book,

wherein you may find how much I love you.  I dare not, cannot

tell how dear you are to me, but if a constant heart you seek,

O here I offer it, a faithful heart hand to hand to thee and love    

is all I have to give, but that is thine and forever.

Yours dearest for all time.

A Map of Matrimony

A handy guide to help you and your lover navigate your way to marital bliss. This is an embossed card of a colour map with named seas and countries showing the possibly treacherous path to the ‘Kingdom of Happiness’.  Obstacles include the ‘Mountains of Delay inhabited by Lawyers’, ‘Petticoat Government’ and the ‘Lake of Presents’ surrounded by the ‘Province of Jewellers and Milliners’.

Map of Matrimony part of the Bath Library Victorian Valentine Collection.

Cobweb Card

Not only is this card a beautifully painted lithograph (upper image) it hides a hidden surprise.  Like opening a lantern, the card becomes 3D and reveals secret under the centre of the butterfly.  It lifts up in a paper ‘cobweb’ cut-out pattern to reveal a cupid (lower image).  The flowers adorning the card could also add extra meaning to those who know how to read the language of flowers.

Cobweb Card part of the Bath Library Victorian Valentine Collection.
Details of the Cobweb Card part of the Bath Library Victorian Valentine Collection.

Pop-up Card

This card is quite lovely, flat in the envelope and once opened pops up into a 3D floral relief complete with sailing ship, darling girl and a puppy. Again the flowers hold their own special message, if you know their meaning.

Pop-Up Card part of the Bath Library Victorian Valentine Collection.

Having glimpsed a brief snapshot of Victorian Valentines, the modern day card market has some fierce competition. The above examples and more have been on show in the Library, and there are several more in the collection of all types.  A photo-shopped animal with an accompanying witticism, is most definitely amusing, but has none of the heart felt sentiment, subtle humour or hidden messages that these delightful examples express.


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