Victorian Valentines

In honor of Valentine’s Day that is celebrated every year on February 14th, I would like to discuss the custom of Valentine’s Day cards specifically those produced and sent during the Victorian Era.  From the Ancient Romans to the early Christians to Chaucer’s prose and Shakespeare’s plays the origins of the celebration of Valentine’s Day has evolved.  But it was the Victorians that took the idea of romantic love and popularized it by producing pre-printed Valentine’s cards and then successfully marketed the concept of sending the cards to loved ones near and far with the introduction of the Royal Mail’s first Penny Post stamp, more on this later in the post.

Shown is an engraving from the Illustrated London News 1874,
depicting a workroom where Valentine’s cards were manufactured

The first known Valentine’s Day cards appeared in the late 18th century and were hand-crafted written messages from an individual specifically created to be placed secretly under a door or attached to a doorknob for a loved one to find.  The messages were made from paper and decorated with hearts or love knots, often created as puzzles with a few lines of poetry.

Shown is an early hand-made puzzle Valentine Card circa 1790
(Private Collection/Bridgeman Image)

Then, pre-printed Valentine cards soon followed in the Georgian Era and the oldest surviving card can be found at the York Castle Museum located in York, North Yorkshire, England.  The card dates back to 1797 and it was printed by John Fairburn of Minories, London.  The card was originally sent by Catherine Mossday to a Mr. Brown of London and features pierced paper which gives the illusion of lace and is decorated with cupids, doves and flowers, the card was hand-colored after printing.

Shown is the oldest surviving pre-printed Valentine’s card

Valentine’s cards proved to be even more popular during the Victorian Era and the public demand prompted stationery companies to mass produce a selection of cards which were decorated with classic symbols representing love; such as hearts, doves and Cupid with his trusty bow and arrows.

With the introduction of the Penny Post by the Royal Mail in 1840 the number of Valentine’s cards sent increased dramatically over the next two decades, at times the English postmen were often exceedingly overwhelmed in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day.  Many of these Victorian Valentine’s cards from the past have survived and the Museum of London holds a collection of over 1,800 cards mostly made by Jonathan King, a successful stationer in London.  The cards in the collection feature pierced or embossed paper with intricate designs embellished with a variety of decorations and poetic verses written to convey feelings of love from the sender.


Shown are a few Victorian Valentine cards from the Museum of London

One particular Valentine card in the collection at the Museum of London was personally created by Jonathan King in 1861 for his future wife.  The unique Valentine takes the form of a box and features several layers of paper and gauze embellished with ribbon, flowers and shells, on the many pages are written several poems and romantic messages.  In a concealed space on the back of the box is a special compartment with several paper flaps with more hidden messages about a woman’s many virtues and one flap in particular opens to reveal a gold ring – the Valentine was Mr. King’s special way of proposing.  Needless to say, she accepted the proposal and the couple married a year later and had fifteen children!  Mr. King’s stationery business in Islington later expanded with the opening of an adjacent store appropriately named the Fancy Valentine Shop which sold a fine selection of handcrafted Valentine’s cards.  (Special Note: If you want to see the Jonathan King Valentine, without the expense of a trip to England, it is featured in the BBC documentary “A Very British Romance with Lucy Worsley”)


Shown above is the Jonathan King Valentine card

I will end this post with a wonderful suggestion … with the recent popularity of unique and elaborate wedding proposals, take the idea of Jonathan King’s Valentine card from long ago and create a one-of-a-kind hand-crafted marriage proposal that will become a lasting memento of that special day.