Tag Archives: British Valentine traditions

Making Valentines in London: 1871


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.


Holly Boys, Ivy Girls, Eggs, and Billets: Old-time Valentine Rites and Customs: 1829, 1700s

18th c valentine

In some villages in Kent there is a singular custom observed on St. Valentine’s day. The young maidens, from five or six to eighteen years of age, assemble in a crowd, and burn an uncouth effigy, which they denominate a “holly boy” and which they obtain from the boys; while in another part of the village the boys burn an equally ridiculous effigy, which they call an “ivy girl,” and which they steal from the girls. The oldest inhabitants can give you no reason or account of this curious practice, though it is always a sport at this season.

Numerous are the sports and superstitions concerning the day in different parts of England. In some parts of Dorsetshire the young folks purchase wax candles, and let them remain lighted all night in the bedroom. I learned this from some old Dorsetshire friends of mine, who, however, could throw no further light upon the subject. In the same county, I was also informed it was in many places customary for the maids to hang up in the kitchen a bunch of such flowers as were then in season, neatly suspended by a true lover’s knot of blue riband. These innocent doings are prevalent in other parts of England, and elsewhere.

Misson, a learned traveller, relates an amusing practice which was kept up in his time:—”On the eve of St. Valentine’s day, the young folks in England and Scotland, by a very ancient custom, celebrated a little festival. An equal number of maids and bachelors assemble together; all write their true or some feigned name separately upon as many billets, which they rolled up, and drew by way of lots, the maids taking the men’s billets, and the men the maids’; so that each of the young men lights upon a girl that he calls his Valentine, and each of the girls upon a young man which she calls her’s.  By this means each has two Valentines; but the man sticks faster to the Valentine that falls to him, than to the Valentine to whom he has fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples, the Valentines give balls and treats to their fair mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love.”

In Poor Robin’s Almanack, 1676, the drawing of Valentines is thus alluded to:

“Now Andrew, Antony, and William,

For Valentines draw

Prue, Kate, Jilian.”

Gay makes mention of a method of choosing Valentines in his time, viz. that the lad’s Valentine was the first lass he spied in the morning, who was not an inmate of the house; and the lass’s Valentine was the first young man she met.

Also, it is a belief among certain playful damsels, that if they pin four bay leaves to the corners of the pillow, and the fifth in the middle, they are certain of dreaming of their lover.

Shakspeare bears witness to the custom of looking out of window for a Valentine, or desiring to be one, by making Ophelia sing:

Good morrow! ’tis St. Valentine’s day.

All in the morning betime. And I a maid at your window.

To be your Valentine!

In London this day is ushered in by the thundering knock of the postman at the different doors, through whose hands some thousands of Valentines pass for many a fair maiden in the course of the day. Valentines are, however, getting very ridiculous, if we may go by the numerous doggerels that appear in the printshops on this day. As an instance, I transmit the reader a copy of some lines appended to a Valentine sent me last year. Under the figure of a shoemaker, with a head thrice the size of his body, and his legs forming an oval, were the following rhymes:—

Do you think to be my Valentine?

Oh, no! you snob, you shan’t be mine:

So big your ugly head has grown.

No wig will fit to seem your own.

Go, find your equal if you can,

For I will ne’er have such a man;

Your fine bow legs and turned-in feet,

Make you a citizen complete.”

The fair writer had here evidently ventured upon a pun; how far it has succeeded I will leave others to say. The lovely creature was, however, entirely ignorant of my calling; and whatever impression such a description would leave on the reader’s mind, it made none on mine, though in the second verse I was certainly much pleased with the fair punster. I wish you saw the engraving!


The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Vol. 13, Reuben Percy, John Timbs, 1829

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The psedonymous gentleman, W.H.H., was in receipt of one of those horrid “comics” or “vinegar valentines,” which have fortunately fallen out of favour, except with school bullies. They previously caused much mischief and heart-burning among the recipients, as told in this post.

A "vinegar valentine" from the Strong Museum of Play.

A “vinegar valentine” from the Strong Museum of Play.

The bay leaf ritual is also mentioned in this article, although one is uncertain whether “colonial” means that the custom found its way from Scotland to the states.


How Girls Did in Colonial Times

Norma Talmadge Treasures Letter Written by One of Ancestors Long Ago.

Speaking of St. Valentine’s Day!

Norma Talmadge claims the girls of colonial times had curious customs to win their sweethearts on the day dedicated to lovers. She can prove it, too, for hers is an extract from a lovely ancestor’s letter, now treasured among the Talmadge heirlooms:

“Last Friday was St. Valentine’s Day,” the long-ago lady wrote, “and the night before I got five bay leaves and pinned four on the corners of my pillow, and the fifth to the middle; then if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said, we should be married before the year was out. But to make sure I boiled an egg hard and took out the yolk and filled it with salt; and when I went to bed ate it shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it. We also wrote out lovers’ names and rolled them up in clay and put them into water; and the first that rose up was to be our Valentine.”
Try it, girls, salt and all.
Seattle [WA] Daily Times 5 February 1922: p. 42

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.