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Victorian Valentines: From Sentiment to Satire

2013 February 11

Alice Crossley

In 2013, the rituals of St. Valentine’s Day, often marked by romantic meals a deux, dozens of red roses, and garish greeting cards, are heavily commercialised. Some might suppose that little of the nineteenth-century quaint ritual and whimsy remains visible in the modern-day marking of this date. In fact, it really was the Victorians who initiated the mass production of valentines. Their promotion of increasingly innovative paper and lace fabrications were a visible and fashionable aspect of the period’s maturing commodity culture. Sending a valentine on the 14th February became a popular and widespread custom from the 1830s. Indeed, in 1883, 2,768,000 valentines were sent in Britain.[i] Rather then being dismissed as innocent, pretty nonsense in the period, valentines played a role in the developing cultural life of the Victorian era. By the end of the century, anxieties were emerging that sincerity, authenticity and self-expression were being eroded through the mass production of valentines. As an increasingly commercial object, the valentine’s ability to convey emotion waned.

Saint Valentine’s history is somewhat obscure, a fact of which many Victorians would have been aware. This day of celebration was said to have marked the martyrdom of either a Roman priest c.AD270, or a Bishop from central Italy. The feast day was also acknowledged to have its origins in the Pagan festivals of the Roman Lupercalia and of Juno Februata, which took place at the same time of the month, with both celebrations dedicated to health and fertility.[ii] Irrespective of these shadowy origins, by the Middle Ages, St. Valentine had become known as the patron saint of lovers.

As well as accounts of the so-called history of Saint Valentine, each February the Victorian press revisited the superstitions and folk customs that had apparently been practiced in the previous century, particularly in rural areas. Many of these traditions acted as a reminder that valentines could perform a function in courtship rituals, and in theory at least might be expected to conclude in marriage. Recorded practices along these lines included the notion that the first person seen on Valentine’s morning would become your husband or wife. Other people stuck bay leaves to their pillow, believing that they would then dream of their true love. A popular tradition also included writing names on scraps of paper, rolling them up in clay and placing them in water, then waiting to see whose name rose to the surface first. That person would then become one’s valentine.[iii]

Fig. 1 Sentimental ‘swan’ valentine, c.1860s. Embossed and coloured lace paper, with chromolithographic scraps. Set on raised paper springs, originally boxed. From The Scrap Album (www.scrapalbum.com)

There were three different categories of valentine in the Victorian period. Sentimental or sincere valentine cards could be purchased for between one penny and one guinea, often with a pretty written verse or a blank space for a personal inscription, images and designs in chromolithography (from 1837), on embossed and lace paper (see fig. 1). They were often adorned with scraps (of the kind that were sold in sheets and used for scrap albums), as well as other forms of embellishment from dried flowers to bits of fabric. Other innovations included perfume sachets, delicate boxed valentines (the upper layers of which would be raised on paper springs to create a 3-D image), and cards with flaps and tabs that could be moved to reveal a message underneath or to alter the picture.

Figure 2: Rebus ‘hieroglyphic’ valentine, c. 1840s. Lithography, hand coloured. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection: Valentines 6

Valentines also became opportunities for harmless fun and novelty, with the emergence of bank notes from the bank of love, rebus valentines or word puzzles (see fig. 2), and fake marriage certificates or telegrams. Bachelor’s Buttons were a popular joke, in which buttons and a needle were attached to the paper, matched by inscriptions such as:

Bachelor’s Buttons, with much sympathy!

Here’s a threaded needle and a couple of shirt buttons!

Wouldn’t you like someone to sew them on for you?[iv]

These hints towards domestic felicity were also evident in Maps of Matrimony, in which the Bay of Engagement and the Ocean of Admiration are, for example, ringed by the Mountains of Delay (inhabited by lawyers) or Petticoat Government, and which contain Isles of Jealousy which must be successfully navigated.

There was also a darker side to the Victorian valentine. A relish for more primitive forms of expression could still be glimpsed in the observances of the day, so that some valentines retained the original traditions of mischief and misrule of this Springtime festival. This was particularly true of comic valentines, in which satire and vulgar witticism found a place alongside the more charming, elegant cards popular across England between the 1830s and 1880s. This is demonstrated by the doggerel lines of this valentine:

This valentine to you I’ve sent,

A negative to compliment;

A portrait of yourself to view,

You can’t mistake, it is true.[v]

Valentines could be used to puncture arrogance and deflate self-satisfaction. Their cruel mockery found targets in the appearance, profession, or character of the unfortunate addressee, as can be seen in this valentine to a jilt (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Comic valentine, to ‘A Jilt’, by A. Park. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection: Valentines 2

One periodical writer, while admitting that ‘On that one day of the year hints can be conveyed with a facility and effect which are impossible at any other’, regretted that such frankness was often painful for the intended recipient:

Innocent pictures of cooing doves, eh? By no manner of means. The malice of the serpent peeps out in every line and curve of them. Their direct purpose is to destroy your peace of mind, and break down all sense of self-respect.[vi]

Figure 4: Comic valentine to a fishmonger, c. 1850s/60s. Lithography, hand coloured. From The Scrap Album

The comic valentine, popular from the 1830s and 1840s, was often condemned by the press as offensive, and crude in both appearance and expression. Such valentines were usually cheaply produced on a single sheet of paper, and their popularity seems to have been based on exposing character defects, as indicated by this valentine to a fishmonger (fig. 4):

You cry your Fish so loud and shrill

Turbot, Mackerel, Plaice and Brill

And on the women passing by

You leer and cast a fishy eye,

Now who on earth would ever wish

To have a man who smells of fish.

Both the man’s low trade and lewd tendencies come under attack, in a rejection of the possibility of future matrimony.

While the Victorian valentine remains an ephemeral object – what collectors refer to as “fugitive material” – such objects were often treasured for their personal value.[vii] Even in the nineteenth century, however, they inspired large-scale collections, such as that belonging to Jonathan King, who was himself a purveyor and manufacturer of valentines at his London stationers. Thus the valentine also conjures up associations with similar paper products that could be collected and collated, like scrap albums, Christmas cards, and postcards. As well as a collectible item, valentines were a popular product for export, with the most costly cards by English companies being sent out to the colonies.

St. Valentine’s Day largely promoted the exchange of sentiment and demonstrations of affectionate goodwill, and Victorian valentines were often sent to family and friends as well as to lovers. The playful language and visual opulence of the valentine, however, could also conceal a lack of authentic emotion. As such missives by this period were likely to be commercially produced rather than handmade, critics of the valentine were concerned that cards with pre-printed messages represented cheap reproductions of sham sentiment.

Thus emerged the Valentine Writer – a book or pamphlet containing rhymes and pleasantries designed for those who could not, or chose not to, furnish their own verses. These Writers often advertised their wares with improbable titles such as The Turtle Dove; or Cupid’s Artillery levelled against human hearts, being a new and original Valentine Writer, or The New Cupid’s Bower; Being a Poetical Garden of Love, abounding with Original Valentines calculate to convey the Sentiments of the Heart in language neat, chaste, and expressive.[viii] One Valentine Writer drew attention to the shortage of new amorous offerings in the stationers’ windows each year as a ploy to entice purchasers: ‘those who wish to pay their compliments of the season … are obliged unless inclined to hazard an original composition) to fall back on … perennials, or else make use of those senseless lace-paper gew-gaws, which are a degree worse’.[ix] The Writer suggests somewhat disingenuously that ‘nothing can be so pungent as an immediate emanation from your own heart’, emphasising originality while nonetheless pedalling a series of pre-written verses designed for reproduction in valentine letters.[x]

The public remained curious about the manufacture and assembly of valentines by printers and illustrators, and in their rapid dissemination across the country by the General Post Office. On the one hand, the modern valentine was therefore perceived in terms of its growing trade presence and innovative commodity status. On the other, however, St. Valentine’s Day continued to be constructed as a nostalgic occasion redolent of tradition, mysticism, and superstition.

Dr Alice Crossley completed her PhD in 2010, and is currently lecturing at Leeds University, Leeds Trinity University, and Leicester University. She is writing a monograph on Male Adolescence in Mid-Victorian Fiction, with a focus on novels by Thackeray, Trollope and Meredith. She has published articles on adolescence in the nineteenth century and on W. M. Thackeray, and is also working on valentines in Victorian literature and culture.


[i] According to Alan Clinton, Printed Ephemera: Collection Organisation and Access (London: Clive Bingley, 1981), 36.

[ii] See, for example, ‘Saint Valentine’, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, 319 (11 February, 1860): 92-4, and for an account of the celebration’s history, Leigh Eric Schmidt, ‘The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870’, Winterthur Portfolio, 28:4 (1993): 209-45.

[iii] These rituals and superstitions were recounted in C. L. E., ‘About Valentines’, London Society, 3:2 (February, 1863): 97-105, and in ‘Saint Valentine’, St. James’s Magazine, n.s.: 2 (October, 1868): 723-9.

[iv] Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. John Johnson Collection:Valentines, 7.

[v] Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection: Valentines, 2.

[vi] W. Cyples, ‘St. Valentine as a Satirist’, Once a Week 3:58 (9 February, 1867), 149.

[vii] Alan Clinton, Printed Ephemera: Collection Organisation and Access (London: Clive Bingley, 1981), 15.

[viii] Sarah Wilkinson (London: W. Perks, n.d.); (London: Dean and Son, [1845]).

[ix] A Collection of New and Original Valentines, Serious & Satirical, Sublime & Ridiculous, on all the Ordinary names, professions, trades, etc.; With an Introductory Treatise on the Composition of a Valentine, by a Master of Hearts (London: Ward and Lock, 1858), 9-10.

[x] A Collection of New and Original Valentines, 14.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Felicity permalink
    February 14, 2013

    Very interesting article, beautifully illustrated, thank you!

  2. Margaret Skerritt permalink
    May 11, 2013

    I am writing my final EMA for an OU module on Classical myth and have decided to use Cupid/Victorian valentines as part of the evidence for how myths have been received in different eras. The article ‘from Sentiment to Satire’ has been very useful and I hope to reference it in my essay.
    Thank you.

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