With Valentine's Day on horizon, we're thinking about our loved ones, of course, but we're also thinking about some of the unique ways that Valentine's Day has been celebrated throughout history. As a child, you may have passed homemade or drugstore-bought Valentines to your classmates and friends. These days, you may share cards and gifts with those closest to your heart. You may even receive gifts like chocolates or heart-shaped candy.
Personally, we're intrigued by the way people celebrated Valentine's Day in Britain during the Victorian Era (from approximately 1820 to 1914, corresponding with the rule of Queen Victoria). We came across a photograph of one Valentine by publisher and printer Ernest Nister, who - during his career - created movable books for children and paper items like greeting cards and postcards.
On this Valentine postcard, which was recently sold on eBay, a woman is depicted holding flowers and a book, and she's surrounded by an intricate frame draped with luscious strands of pearls. The message reads, "To my True Love. Your charming grace, sweet Valentine, has captured this fond heart of mine." Naturally, the pearls on this Valentine card, in addition to the sweet design, piqued our interest.
So why did people in Victorian times enjoy these intricate and whimsical Valentines so much? In this article, we'll explore the history behind Victorian Valentine's Day cards and how they've impacted how we celebrate Valentine's Day today.
Overall, it seems like the Victorian people were drawn to sentimentality, and they enjoyed exchanging meaningful objects with their loved ones. In another one of our blog posts, titled "Insights into the History of Experiential Jewelry", we wrote about love tokens and charm bracelets, two types of jewelry adored by the Victorians. While love tokens were unique coin keepsakes engraved with meaningful initials or names, charm bracelets were typically worn to mourn the death of loved ones. It makes sense that the people of this era would also be drawn to sentimental Valentine traditions, like the exchanging of heartfelt cards.
The origins of Valentine's Day can actually be traced all the way back to ancient Rome. The name "Valentine's Day" comes from St. Valentine, but the actual story of this individual is shrouded in mystery. In the Catholic Church, at least three different saints have the name "Valentine" or "Valentinus", and they were all martyred. According to one legend, Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome, who he defied Emperor Claudius II. The ruler decided that young single men would make better soldiers than husbands, so he outlawed marriage for young men. In disagreement with Claudius, Valentine continued marrying young lovers in secret, but the emperor discovered the priest and sentenced him to death. This is only one of many possible legends about the origin of Valentine's Day.
Even though Valentine's Day existed long before the 1800s, the Victorian people seemed to be particularly enthusiastic about it, creating new celebrations and traditions. According to the History Channel, "Valentine’s Day became so popular that postal carriers received special meal allowances to keep themselves running during the frenzy leading up February 14th" (Source). Victorians not only loved to send their cards, but they also enjoyed displaying the cards they received prominently in their parlors.
In general, the cards themselves "were flat paper sheets, often printed with colored illustrations and embossed borders. The sheets, when folded and sealed with wax, could be mailed" (Source). In 1840, Great Britain introduced the Uniform Penny Post, which enabled people to mail their cards for just a penny. Prior to 1840, the recipient of a card was actually responsible for the postage cost, which was sometimes more than a day's wages. As a result, people took advantage of the low postage cost, and the mass-produced Valentine card industry was born.
Despite the availability of mass-produced cards, some people still put time and effort into making their own Valentines and getting very creative with their assembly and construction. They'd use materials like lace, ribbon, silk flowers, and cut-out paper elements to devise the perfect card. The Guardian has a photo gallery featuring examples of some of the most unique and memorable Victorian cards.
Known as the "Mother of the American Valentine", Esther Howland is responsible for bringing the Valentine’s Day greeting card craze to the United States. When she was 19 years old, she received an elaborate English Valentine from one of her father's business associates and then decided to start importing paper lace and floral decorations from England to make her own cards. However, Valentine's Day cards in the US didn't reach their peak popularity until after the Civil War, when the holiday started to become a profitable business in and of itself.
Queen Victoria herself was not about giving and receiving Valentine's cards. In fact, there's some scandal involving Valentine's greetings and the queen, who also happened to be a lover of pearls. Rumor has it that Queen Victoria was romantically attracted to her man servant John Brown and that she may have even married him in secret. In her journal, Victoria referred to John as "darling one”, and she sent him cards on Valentine's Day.
Victorians also had what they referred to as "vinegar" Valentines, cards that were specifically designed to offend the recipient. If you had an enemy, or you were sick and tired of a particular suitor chasing after you, then you could send the vinegar Valentine to communicate your message. One card reads, "To My Valentine / ‘Tis a lemon that I hand you and bid you now ‘skidoo,’ Because I love another—there is no chance for you" (Source). Some of these cards were more sassy and fun in their tone, but others were cruel.
Do you love the idea of sending Valentine's cards to more people in your life or brightening your holidays with some Victorian traditions? We have some ideas to help you accomplish that.
Try making your own Victorian-inspired Valentines
A number of cardmaking enthusiasts on the Internet have shared their own passion for Victorian Valentines. For example, the blog "Stamped for the Occasion" is all about cards and papercrafts by card-lover Amelia. In this post, she shares some of her award-winning card designs, including a "Sent with Love" Valentine featuring pink pearls, a rosey "Love" Valentine with a pink-pearl heart, and a "Just for You" birdcage Valentine with rows of white pearls. On this page, she also shared a beautiful swirling design with pearls. Do you feel inspired yet?
On this page, blogger Annelle shares her romantic treasure box, which is adorned with flowers, butterflies, birds, and of course - pearls. Here, blogger Live & Love Crafts shares a "book card", which is a beautiful keepsake item that could potentially make the perfect Valentine's day gift. The cover of the book card has paper cut-outs, rhinestones, lace, a shabby seam binding bow, and white pearl beads.
Host a Victorian-style tea party
In some parts of the country, people still can't really patronize restaurants for Valentine's Day due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you must stay home, you can at least make the best of it by bringing some festive cheer to the situation. We suggest throwing yourself and your loved one a Victorian-themed tea party with luxurious teas and some delicious and dainty treats like pastries and bite-size sandwiches.
Victorian decor is all about frills and romance, so you can have fun incorporating details like flowers, pearls, and lace into your tea party setup. This table display, for example, features "lace elements and floral patterns rendered in delicate hues, such as dusty blue and powder pink, set against white". Pearls are also scattered across the table for a playful and luxurious finish. This page has more inspiration for Victorian tea party decor with pearls, tea cups, books, and flowers.
Make a Victorian-inspired Valentine wreath
Wreaths are typically associated with the Christmas holiday, but you can hang wreaths at any time of year to bring a festive flair to your home decor. Pinterest is full of some really beautiful ideas for Victorian-inspired Valentine wreaths, if you're interested in trying to make one yourself. Here's one beautiful pink wreath made from pink vintage ephemera, and here's another one embellished with teacups and pearls. If you're not necessarily interested in making a full-blown wreath, then you may want to make some heart-shaped ornaments covered in pearls and multi-colored buttons.
In the United States, most people celebrate some of the same Valentine's Day traditions - exchanging heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, giving a dozen red roses, and enjoying a romantic meal for two. However, you can also create your own traditions. We recommend gifting a cultured pearl necklace to your loved one or trying some new inspired by the past, like the Victorian ideas we shared in this post. At the end of the day, Valentine's Day is about sharing and expressing love, and we encourage you to do that in a way that feels authentic to you.