Saturday, February 14, 2015

Our Valentine to You: All About Victorian Valentines

The Victorians were thoroughly in love with love. The original flower children were part of a time when affairs of the heart were more celebrated and necklines were not so buttoned up and so, of course, Valentine's Day promised great fun for  all. Major paradigm shifts helped this along, including the increasingly common and shockingly modern idea that one could include love in their reasons for entering into holy matrimony. With this new freedom, Victorians devoted enormous energy to sending their dear ones missives worthy of their love. Common practices included hand-painting your own Valentines and rimming them in layers of fine lace, or gifting lockets, small mirrors, or "puzzle purses", origami inspired Valentines that delivered more and more dramatic professions of amour as they were unfolded. Love knots, amorous acrostics, and cheeky riddles abounded.

An early example of a Puzzle Purse, circa 1816
from Victoriana Magazine
The first Valentines to be commercially produced actually hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts (New England, ever a bastion for innovation). The clever and creative Esther Howland, who later came to be known as "The Mother of the Valentine", started making Valentines to order in her home in 1848 and the business venture had explosive popularity, nearly overnight, selling thousand of her handmade Valentines to amorous suitors all over the world. Her business eventually came to make over $100,000 a year, which would come out to just over three million dollars annually in 2015. The enormous success of Howland's Valentines was in no small part due to prepaid postage stamps and the advent of the affordable Penny Post, introduced in 1840 in England and 1847 in the United States. Suddenly, even common folks could  send messages to sweethearts all over the world.

An example of an Esther Howland Valentine
Even our inspiration Charles Dickens gave a nod to the phenomena of the Valentine in his own publication Household Words, describing a post-office awash with confessions and declarations of love as
"sacrifices to the fane of St. Valentine—consisting of hearts, darts, Cupid peeping out of paper-roses, Hymen embowered in hot-pressed embossing, swains in very blue coats and nymphs in very opaque muslin, coarse caricatures and tender verses.”

Victorian Valentines were not limited to sweet nothings or even vaguely lewd suggestion, but were also occasionally used as a platform to shake a finger at someone or completely insult them. They ranged from the playful to the downright nasty. These were known as vinegar valentines and were a common practice throughout the waging of the Civil War, losing steam as one century turned into another. Perhaps it is not a tradition to be missed.

An Esther Howland creation

So this our Pickwick's Mercantile Valentine to you, a little bit of a peek at what inspires our own love of this delightful holiday. I hope that you are out upholding the legacy and spirit of Valentine's Day in your very own way today. You know we'll be at it today, tomorrow, and always!

"A loving heart is the truest wisdom."
- Mr. Charles Dickens


For more seasonally appropriate reading on this fun topic:
The Valentine - a Tribute to Love (Victoriana Magazine)
"Valentine's at the Post Office" by Charles Dickens
"Esther Howland and the American Valentine Industry"
"Love and Derision, or Valentine's Victorian Style"