In the run-up to Valentine’s Day this coming Saturday, Professor Chris Woolgar of the Faculty of Humanities reflects on the development of valentines.
Marking Valentine’s Day with a personal note to one’s beloved was in practice established by the end of the eighteenth century. Developments in patterns of communication and technologies for making stationery in the first half of the nineteenth century brought dramatic changes in the possibilities for 14 February. Written communication at the start of the century was an elite practice; with a few exceptions, largely in major urban areas, sending letters was expensive, and depended on distance and numbers of sheets of paper. The urban postal market was developed particularly in London and the first part of the nineteenth century made communication much cheaper. But the real change came with the introduction of uniform penny postage, in 1840. That year the number of letters delivered doubled; in 1841, 169 million were delivered, and more than 400 million were delivered in 1853. The interest in valentines can be seen in the weekly statistics of the postal system: at a point when Christmas barely made a mark, in the second week of February 1841 an extra half million letters were delivered, one eighth of all the mail, because of the traffic in valentines. The great expansion in postal traffic was especially important for two constituencies: one was advertising and ‘junk mail’, the other was the possibilities it gave women for sending and receiving letters. This latter immediately raised questions of morality, of the potential for women to write to and to receive letters from people who were unknown to them. Valentines encapsulated this development.
Nineteenth century valentine card from the collection BR46
The second change was in terms of the production of stationery. Developments like embossing paper appeared at the start of the nineteenth century, and there was fine stationery for ladies on the market by the late 1810s; by the 1830s engraved views were commonly added to higher-class products. Paper production itself expanded very greatly through the 1830s and 1840s, with the widespread use of machine-made paper; and printing techniques also increased the range of possibilities for circulating text, and for decoration. In a mass market, however, it was important to maintain a personal aspect, especially in intimate matters — and a handwritten note was essential (it is for this reason that even to this day invitation cards use scripts that imitate handwriting). In terms of valentines, more expensive products incorporated this personal element: the designs in the middle part of the market were often handwritten, or hand-coloured; the more exceptional products had additions of lace, or cut paper. The cards were probably largely produced by women, because of their dexterity in fine work — and we know from the style of handwriting that many of the verses on the cards were copied out by women as part of the production process. The cards are difficult to date precisely, but the paper sometimes has watermarks which will tell us in which year it was made — so it is possible to establish a general chronology. A sense of privacy and intimacy was implicit in communications of this sort, and another development of the 1830s, the introduction of envelopes (as opposed to using sealed, folded paper wrappers), facilitated the romantic transaction.
Illustration from a nineteenth century valentine card from the collection BR46
The third great change — and the prime mover in the development of the valentine — was one of sentiment. Romance, from the three-decker novel to lover’s tokens, had a major impact on popular culture. The range of valentines can be seen in the Broadlands Archives, which contain a group of some 340, largely from the 1830s and 1840s. They represent the stock of a stationer’s, and were purchased by W.W.Ashley, Lord Mount Temple, in June 1910 from a London bookseller (this is one of several additional groups of archive material which he purchased, including, for example, papers of the Prime Minister, the second Viscount Melbourne). All the cards are different, and all are presumably unused. One can imagine they formed the stock of a shop such as the one that fascinated Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers (1837):
‘The particular picture on which Sam Weller’s eyes were fixed, as he said this, was a highly coloured representation of a couple of human hearts skewered together with an arrow, cooking before a cheerful fire, while a male and female cannibal in modern attire, the gentleman being clad in a blue coat and white trousers, and the lady in a deep red pelisse with a parasol of the same, were approaching the meal with hungry eyes, up a serpentine gravel path leading thereunto. A decidedly indelicate young gentleman, in a pair of wings, and nothing else, was depicted as superintending the cooking; a representation of the spire of the church in Langham Place, appeared in the distance; and the whole formed a “valentine” of which, as a written inscription in the window testified, there was a large assortment within …’