Making Valentines in London: 1871

THE VALENTINE IN LONDON.

Curious to see one of the veritable temples of Venus, whence issue the bleeding hearts and flowery darts of Cupid, we were directed to a very unromantic house in that very prosaic thoroughfare Aldersgate street, in which is installed as agent of the classic goddess a very business-like but romantic-looking Englishman, who does by substitute, we are given to understand, the major portion of lover’s work in this country. We were informed that he keeps a real poet, as part of his manufacturing machinery; and as we wound our way up the dark and devious stairs, we looked about for that individual with “eye in fine frenzy rolling,” but failed to catch it, as we passed the smudgy-looking printers intent upon their prosaic work. Nevertheless, this armory of Venus upon inspection proved to be one of the curiosities of this great city.

We soon became aware of one fact that a little astonished us—the valentine of the shops is not even indigenous. Not only do we no longer address our lovers in our own phrases, ornamented with our own devices, but we fail to supply the manufactured substitute. France, the reader will instantly suggest, finds us in the sentimental finery, the amatory poetry, and the soft lace-work in which the British youth wraps up his affections. Nothing of the kind; strange delusion; they know nothing of valentines in fair France. There, New Year’s Day takes its place, and it is to old Germany that we have to go to find St. Valentine as much respected as amongst ourselves.

In the old land of printing, the valentine has always been a theme for the printer’s and the lithographer’s art; hence the reason of their power to supersede our own handicraft in this department of ornamental stationery. But if we import the foreign work, we utilize it in our own fashion. German valentines come over to us in the form of embossed and colored card-work, of the most elaborate character—wreaths, devices, pictures, emblems, all grouped together in fancy designs; the different parts, however, being attached by fine points which easily break asunder. The English valentine-maker fancies he can make combinations of his own out of these easily resolved materials, which will suit the home market better; hence the first part of his business is to break the German valentines to pieces, in order that they may be built up afresh. Rows of sprightly young damsels are engaged at this work, tearing hearts out of encircling wreaths, separating lace-work from mottoes, with the most unconcerned hands, disuniting the most touching emblems, reducing flowery pictures to mere disjecta membra, which other hands are employed in reuniting in a more simple fashion. All valentines, it is true, are not subjected to this revolutionary process; it is only the cheaper sort, in which we cannot compete with the foreign work. The more expensive valentines are of home manufacture.

The range of cost is extraordinary, extending from a penny to a pound. In the higher-priced ones, satin and lace are the surroundings, and the settings are exquisite pictures. These are arranged with such springs and delicate foldings that they will not bear the rough usage of the post, but require the protection of elaborate cases. In short, a high-class valentine packed for delivery is like a lady going to the opera, who must have the whole carriage-seat to herself, to keep her flounces, her Brussels lace, and her towering headdress entirely free from the touch of ordinary mortals; so the delicate fancy valentine is fenced off, and goes by the parcel post—a mighty aristocrat beside the ordinary penny specimens in the postman’s bag.

Lace-work for valentines is a manufacture by itself, and is made in a very curious way. It is stamped in relief in a metal mold; one side of the mold is then lifted, and all the superfluous paper is rubbed away with pumice-stone, leaving the lace pattern in the die, from which it is lifted when cleared of its surroundings.

The statistics of London valentines, if they could be procured, would be very curious. There is no means of even making a guess at the numbers which pass through the post-offices of the entire kingdom; but a guess may be made at the numbers passing through St. Martin’s-le-Grand. The average number of letters is, of course, pretty well known, and in the year 1866 there passed through the London post-offices, for delivery in town and country, 897,900 in excess of this average on St. Valentine ‘s Day. In 1868 the excess had increased to 1,199,142. Probably on St. Valentine ‘s Day, 1871, this number will have increased to a million and a half, bringing a revenue, due entirely to the tender sentiment, of upward of £15,000. Who shall say after this that sentiment does not pay?

Frank Leslies Weekly, 18 March 1871

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: In 1895, the Valentine trade was said to be in decline.

Practically, there is but one firm left in the valentine trade, namely, Messrs. Goode Brothers, of Clerkenwell. The astonishingly rapid decline of the valentine within the past ten years brought ruin to many a wholesale manufacturer, to whom the trade was worth perhaps £20,000 a year, between the years 1870 and 1875-—the golden age of the valentine. At this period a single maker would keep six designers and eighty girls employed on valentines all the year round. Rice paper from China was bought by the shipload; plush, in wholesale quantities of 9,000 yards at 2s. per yard; and silk fringe, from Coventry, in bales of a hundred gross of yards. Twenty years ago, too, the big valentine dealer’s turnover was a thousand pounds a week during the three months of the season; and in his workrooms a quarter of a ton of the finest white gum disappeared in the dainty trifles. Four well-paid male artists designed the “comics”—mainly trade skits and domestic incidents—and these were reproduced on 1,500 reams of paper. The machines were kept going night and day, turning out a million caricatures a week, of which some 5,000 gross were dispatched to Australia by sailing vessels in May and June. From a hundred to a hundred and thirty different comic designs were produced every year, and one house would have five smart “commercials” showing the pattern-books to retailers in all parts of the kingdom….

One of the very few of the valentine “commercials” left in London tells a woeful tale of the dying trade. Every season a fresh batch of fancy dealers shake their heads at his approach, with the remark, “I don’t think I’ll go in for it this year.” The valentine trade in the Metropolis is simply infinitesimal; the matter-of-fact Londoner prefers to send his lady-love a box of gloves on the “fourteenth,” and we opine that the damsel herself prefers this useful valentine even to the chastely designed “ sentimental” of to-day, though the latter be resplendent with aluminium frosting which costs a guinea a pound.

Although flowers and confectionary are always acceptable, one simply cannot argue with a useful box of gloves, particularly if the gentleman has spent enough time holding one’s hand to ascertain the correct size.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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5 thoughts on “Making Valentines in London: 1871

      1. chriswoodyard Post author

        Perhaps, based on to-day’s heart-warming Valentine gift story, you will be the recipient of a diamond parure. One can dream…. And one suspects that to-day’s rather dull printed Valentines are produced in similarly dire circumstances with artists and writers chained to desks and forced to create Dora the Explorer, Disney Princess, and Star Wars licensed art or ring the creative changes on “Roses are Red; Violets are Blue; If you’ll be my [heart], May the Force be with you.”

        Liked by 1 person

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