Valentine’s Day can be a bit of a hard slog. Cliché cards, disingenuous announcements of devotion and an overbearing commercialism can make it all feel a bit thin on the ground. Having a little bit more fun with 14th February isn’t hard. One way you can step back and get some perspective on Valentine’s Day is by examining how people celebrated it in the past.
Valentine’s Day has a long and storied history, beginning even before the birth of St Valentine as the festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated by pagan priests and citizens. It was in the Victorian age, however, when a more modern version of the celebration that we might somewhat recognize today rose to prominence. Indeed, Valentine’s Day celebrations were all the rage in the 19th century, and spawned some rather extreme devotional gifts. Here is how to add a Victorian twist to your celebration of romance and devotion by taking some inspiration from 19th-century Valentine’s Day cards.
Some Victorian Valentine’s Day cards were immensely delicate, elaborate and expensive. Men were known to save up large portions of their often-meagre wages in order to buy the most elaborate cards possible for their lovers. Paper lace designs were especially popular during these times. The ‘Barometer of Love’ paper lace card housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a great example of a delicate paper lace card. Joseph Addenbrooke reportedly invented paper lace in 1834 whilst working on embossing techniques.
Gentlemen – when thinking up Valentine’s gifts for her, you might be tempted to break out the old moleskin notebook and start scribbling. The Victorians often sent cards that contained elaborate rhymes, with Victorian rhyming cards often bordering on the absurd. The popularity of nonsense poetry in the Victorian age – most notably the work of Edward Lear – led to a craze of people sending their romantic interests poems that expressed both love and, well, nonsense.
We don’t often think of the Victorians as having a particularly vibrant sense of humour, but their choice of Valentine’s Day cards seemed to rather contradict this historical stereotype. Indeed, some of the most popular Valentine’s Day cards of the era were ‘vinegar valentines’. These cards, which were often sent anonymously, were deliberately designed to titillate and offend. They often featured gaudy caricatures of weeping, lonely people beside crude, rude and crass poetry.
Vinegar valentines were at the height of popularity during the middle of the 19th century. The museum of Wales has a great collection of these crude cards. Their archive contains an 1846 report in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian that bemoaned the crass design of vinegar valentines, which typically took the form of “ridiculous coloured caricature of the male or female figure, with a few burlesque verses below”.
By the late Victorian period, they were seen as vulgar and immoral by the general population, and the once-booming industry surrounding the creation of insulting Valentine’s Day cards found itself falling into obscurity.