Next week the Museum’s 19th century valentine card collection will be available to view on our website as part of our collections online project and this is the first of a series of three blog posts about the cards – the other two will go out next week in the lead up to Valentines Day.
Collections online project Assistant, Ellie, will be talking about the cards as one of the activities at the Museum’s Pleasure Garden Ball on Valentine’s Night. There will be a stall where Ellie will be talking about the cards and bringing some of them out of the stores for the evening, so come along and say hello if you’re coming to the ball.
Here, Ellie talks about working with the museum’s Valentine card collection…
At this time of year Valentine’s Day can either feel like a touching celebration of love, or a highly commercial, sentimental enterprise. If it seems that the shops are full of Valentine’s cards at the moment, it’s certainly not for the first time. For the last few months I’ve been working with the Museum of London’s collection of almost 1,800 nineteenth-century valentine cards, and now it seems the commercial and the romantic functions of Valentine’s cards aren’t anything new!
London’s relationship with valentines cards goes back at least two hundred years – by the mid 1820s, an estimated 200,000 valentines circulated annually within London. With the advent of the standardised penny postal service they really took off – by the late 1840s the number was reported to have doubled, and had doubled again by the 1860s. London-made valentine cards were even exported to America, where they were sold advertised as the latest London fashions. The other parts of this card collection are now in the archives of the Hallmark card company.
The sending of cards through the penny post provided a means to maintain the playful aspects of formal courtship, allowing the sender to decide whether to aspire to anonymity or provide clues to their identity. By the mid nineteenth century some valentine traditions had already been established and card makers adapted these to their designs. Springtime rebirth, flowers, birds and rhymes were already popular valentine motifs by this time, and the sentimental Victorian image of cupid was not far behind. Paper scraps were collaged with hand-painted illustration and lace paper to build up the cards, some of which are several centimetres deep. Birds were such a favourite motif that some of cards in the collection went as far as integrating stuffed birds into their collages.
Many of the cards are built up with layers of lace paper and ornamented with scraps and cut out sheets. The museum has some of the sample sheets in his collection, such as this translucent sheet. It includes a number of duplicate affectionate lines, printed onto transparent paper ready to personalise dozens of cards.
Perhaps as a way to alleviate the anxiety of articulating affectionate desire, many of the cards integrate proposals of marriage. Valentine makers sought to extend the market throughout February, so there is even a group of cards intended for the 29th of February, so that women could use them to propose to their sweethearts in the leap year tradition.
Of all the engagement cards I find this the most striking. It reads ‘I am ready to face you at any time respecting our engagement’. If that wasn’t convincing enough, the head of the boar’s head folds down to reveal the message: ‘You are a darling’.
Our collections online programme aims to bring greater online access to our collections over the next three years, including the addition of over 90,000 objects to our website. To discover more about the work involved in bringing the collection to you follow our Project Assistant blogs here.