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Cruel cards & loving lobsters: quirky Victorian Valentines

Valentine's Day cards were big business in Victorian London, and stationers competed to be the most experimental and eyecatching. See some of the weird and wonderful highlights of over 1,700 Valentine’s Day cards in the museum collection.

13 February 2017

All of these cards were designed and printed right here in London. Most of them were made in the workshops of one Islington based stationer, Jonathan King, who ran a card making studio next door to his shop on the Essex Road. As well as the beautifully illustrated and romantic, the cards in our collection range from gentle teasing and novelty to downright insulting and plain weird. Some just remind us that amusing cat pictures have never really gone out of style.

Velentine's card featuring embossed and silvered lace paper border onto which has been mounted an image of a cat taunting a caged bird.

May the one I love be preserved from all dangers

Valentine's card featuring a cat taunting a caged bird; ID no. NN7917

Handfinished valentine's card stored within an original card box, without lid. The card comprises a top sheet of uncoloured lace paper decorated with an applied stuffed canary

Roses are red, canaries are yellow

Handfinished Valentine's card, 1850-79; ID no. A28549/7

London’s relationship with Valentine's Day 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.

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 into their designs. Springtime rebirth, flowers, birds and rhymes were already popular Valentine's Day motifs, and the sentimental Victorian image of cupid was not far behind.

Many of these cards are elborately hand-made. 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, like the unfortunate canary on this card.

Skate into my heart: niche & novelty valentines

Printed valentine's card published by Jonathan King comprising a single sheet of card printed with a coloured chromolithographed figure of cupid firing an arrow and wearing roller skates.

Novelty Valentine's card, 1881-1900

ID no. 34.170/1073

At this time of year London stationers put on enormous, impressive displays of Valentine's cards in their shop windows. London’s stationers experimented with thousands of ideas for cards, both for domestic sale and for export to the USA and the British Empire. The relentless search for novelty led to some really unusual designs, like this roller-skating cupid.

The message reads: "Ere CUPID wore the nimble wheel, Which supersedes the glittering steel, Yet scarcely proves so safe a keel, And went a-RINKING He launched a dart and wounded me, My sweet, the bolt was tipped with thee, And so I met it lovingly, Without once SHRINKING."

By the late nineteenth century, when this card was made, roller skating was a big craze in London. ‘Rinkomania’ struck the capital, and roller rinks opened around London. Skates were advertised for children and adults, and the roller rinks were a new opportunity for men and women to socialize. Perhaps this card was for designed to be bought by those skated head-over-heels in love.

Valentine's card with cream lace paper and embossed border. The central panel has an applied paper image representing a false leg stump and the handwritten message 'All ready for a hop with you'.

'All ready for a hop with you'

Valentine's card, 1860-80; ID no. 34.170/376

Why must I be a crustacean in love? Weird valentines

As well as the romantic cards, King’s shop sold a wide selection of less affectionate valentines. These ranged from gentle teasing and novelty valentines to some with really spiteful messages. This example, featuring a wooden leg, is at the gentler end of the spectrum. The paper used in this card suggests it was produced in a similar style to the sentimental cards and with a similar purpose in mind. Victorian London was a dangerous place, full of hazards that might cut off a leg, from carriage wheels to heavy factory machinery. Perhaps this card was made for someone who wished to woo an unfortunate amputee?

A Victorian handmade Valentine's Day card depicting a lobster.

'The lobster in love'

Valentine's card, 1860-1880; ID no. 34.170/528

There are a range of these novelty cards, and many are lift-the-flap cards, like this 'lobster in love'. When the lobster is raised it reveals the message ‘I have a lady in my head’. This might be a reference to the shape of the meat inside a cooked lobster, which I suppose could be said to be shaped like a woman.

These cards were produced between 1860 and 1880, by which time the common symbols of Valentine's Day were quickly becoming established. There was still space for innovation — these would have been an alternative and experimental range of cards. Sadly, the lobster experiment did not take off and failed to last through the years as a romantic motif.

As the cards were collected from shop stock, we don’t know quite how many of these were sold – the wooden leg card, for example, must have had a fairly limited market. The entrepreneurial spirit of these early holiday merchants evidently identified a gap in the market: why limit Valentine's Day purchases to your one and only sweetheart when you could send cards to all the people you disliked as well?

He loves me not: vicious valentines

Comic valentine's card printed as a woodcut on cheap paper with a caricature of a woman eating a pie. The print is crudely coloured and below is printed a verse

Comic Valentine's card, 1840-49

ID no. 34.170/1555

Comic valentine's card comprising a single sheet printed with an image of a woman walking her dog looking up at the moon with a smiley face. Below is printed 'The only man, who smiles on you!'

Rude Valentine's Day card, 1870-85

ID no. 34.170/949

The spiteful cards certainly look striking, a lively contrast to the romantic cards which tended to be rather repetitive. Unlike the sentimental cards, the insulting cards are not ornate and they certainly weren’t made of expensive, embossed lace papers. On the whole, the insulting cards are cheaply printed and crudely hand-coloured. They're clearly disposable, meant to be dashed off as anonymous jokes.

As well as a caricature they include mocking rhymes, explaining in no uncertain terms why the recipient can never hope for romantic feelings from the sender. In the museum’s collection the majority were designed to be sent to men, as they mock specific trades and work. There are also some designed to be sent to women; these tend to mock the recipient’s appearance or behaviour. The card above, for example, is addressed to "Mrs. Glutton": "with you I don't breakfast — nor yet do I dine, Mrs. Glutton, for me you are no Valentine."

It is possible that they were sent with flirtatious intent, although it’s hard to imagine any recipient being forgiving enough for that plan to work.

Hop to it: leap year "valentines"

Valentine's card of white lace paper with embossed flower decoration and central white panel on which is handwritten 'An opportunity not to be lost. I ask you with all love sincere If this leap Year you'll have me dear'.

Take a leap with me

White lace paper valentine, 1840-1870; ID no. 34.170/217

Many of these Valentine's Day cards contain proposals of marriage, or sometimes references to pre-existing engagements. It's a reminder of the formality of courtship for many Victorian Londoners.

Valentine makers were determined to not leave any potential customer behind. 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.

This card reads: "An opportunity not to be lost. I ask you with all love sincere, If this Leap-year you'll have me Dear?"

The white lace paper is decorated with a paper wreath of flowers and small cut-out paper frog, who carries the motto "Leap here" in case the recipient should miss the subtle humour.

To find your own favourites, browse our complete selection of 1788 Victorian Valentine's Day cards on Collections Online.