The Museum of London's valentine card collection holds over 1,700 cards produced in the city. Most of these cards were made in the workshops of Islington stationer, Jonathan King. King ran a card-making workshop with his mother next door to his shop in Essex Road. Here staff would assemble cards from parts of paper lace and printed scrap motifs. As well as valentines cards they also made Christmas cards and general greetings cards.
By the mid 1820s it was estimated that 200,000 valentines circulated around London With the advent of the standardised penny postal service in 1840 valentine cards became an even more popular expression of affection. By the late 1840s the number of Valentine cards sent was reported to have doubled, and had doubled again by the 1860s. London-made valentine cards were 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 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.
Many of the cards are built up with layers of lace paper and ornamented with scraps and scrolls of text. The lace paper was bought from London paper firms such as those owned by Meek and by Dobbs. The museum has some of the sample sheets from King's collection too. Paper scraps were collaged with hand-painted illustration and lace paper to build up the cards.
By the mid nineteenth century some valentine traditions had already been established and card makers adapted these to their designs. Springtime renewal, flowers, birds and rhymes were already popular valentine motifs by this time, and the sentimental Victorian image of cupid was not far behind.
Courtship traditions such as the giving of gloves were also used as subject matter for cards. Sometimes valentine cards would be used to propose. Valentine sellers like King sought to extend the valentine season throughout February, even selling a range of cards designed for women to propose to men on the 29th of February in leap years.
Spoof valentines were also popular; the museum's collection includes spoof court summons and a phoney bank-note, made out to the 'bank of love'.
As well as the romantic cards, King's collection contains a wide selection of less affectionate valentines. These ranged from gentle teasing and novelty valentines to some with very spiteful messages. Unlike the sentimental cards, the insulting cards are not ornate and they certainly weren’t made of expensive, embossed lace papers. In contrast to the handmade, romantic cards , the insulting cards were cheaply printed and crudely hand-coloured. Instead of the elaborate layers and symbolic motifs of the romantic cards, the comic valentines used caricature and short verse to bluntly reject partners. The majority of those in the Museum of London collections were designed to be sent to men, as they mock specific trades and work. There are also, however, some designed to be sent to women; these tend to mock the recipient's appearance or behaviour.
The heart shapes, flowers and rhymes that were all used to decorate the cards have remained popular. Romantic valentines cards made and sold in the nineteenth century developed and refined many of the visual symbols which remain connected to love.