In pictures: creepy historical Valentine’s Day cards

In early February, shops are flooded with a sea of red: scarlet hearts on enormous cards; claret velvet chocolate boxes; and crimson blooms. The business is vast: Brits spent £650 million on cards and gifts in 2018 and predictions suggest that consumers will spend even more this year, determined to prove devotion to the object of their affections. But cards exchanged on 14 February have not always depicted hearts and flowers. Here, Fiona Snailham investigates the darker side of Valentine's Day cards…

An Art Deco mechanical valentine (moving the cape causes the arms to move up and down) from the 1930s. (Photo by Alan Mays)

A medieval nobleman, sick of love

In the mid-1400s, Charles Valois, the Duke of Orleans, penned a Valentine poem for his wife. Considered to be one of the earliest Valentine’s poems, Valois’s missive is far from an ardent declaration of marital passion. Instead, the sombre wording reveals a 21-year-old who is already ‘sick of love’.

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Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,
Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené
M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.
Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée

I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too soon,
And I for you was born too late.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.

VDCharles I de Valois, Duke of Orléans. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)
Charles I de Valois, Duke of Orléans. In the mid-1400s, de Valois penned a poem for his wife that is considered to be one of the first Valentine’s poems. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Why such a bleak tone on a day intended to celebrate love? The circumstances in which the verse was penned may shed some light on Charles’s sense of desperation. Having already lost one wife, Valois was still only 15 when he married 11-year-old Bonne D’Armagnac in 1410. Their time together was short-lived: Charles was captured by the English at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and held captive for 25 years. The above verse was penned during a period of imprisonment in the Tower of London. Alone in a cell, having outlived one wife and been involuntarily separated from another, Valois’s solemnity might be excused.

The unfortunate pair were never reunited: Bonne had died by the time her husband was released. This fascinating letter is held in the manuscript collections at the British Library, though sadly there is no record of any reply.

A portrait of the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c1340-1400), who modern literary scholars credit for turning Valentine into the patron of love. Chaucer was a major influencer in his day – after him, everyone began calling their beloved “Valentine” and writing love poems on 14 February, says Lisa Bitel. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Georgian puzzle

While it was common practice to exchange letters and love tokens in February, the first ‘cards’ were not sent until the late 18th century. Lack of technology meant that early cards were handmade, with lovers decorating paper with flowers and romantic symbols. Pamphlets were available designed to assist those who struggled to express themselves. The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, published in 1797, offered a selection of poems that could be copied out and sent to the beloved.

A 'puzzle purse', a popular type of card from the Georgian period that had to be unfolded in a particular way to reveal the hidden verse within. (Photo by The Postal Museum Collection)
A ‘puzzle purse’, a popular type of card from the Georgian period that had to be unfolded in a particular way to reveal the hidden verse within. (Photo by The Postal Museum Collection)

In Britain, the oldest surviving Valentines card is thought to date from 1790. The recipient had to work to discover their valentine: the card was a puzzle that had to be unfolded in a particular way in order to reveal delicate illustrations and the verse hidden within. Known as a ‘puzzle purse’, this unusual example is among a collection of 800 Valentines held in the archives of the Postal Museum’s archives.

The oldest printed card in the world, dated around 1797, is also a part of this stunning collection. Delicate paper, pierced to produce a lace effect, the illustrations appear to have been hand-coloured after printing. 

Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, Wales. (Photo by Getty Images)

Vinegary Victorians

The sending of cards became more common during the Victorian era, with the development of new printing techniques and reductions in the cost of paper. Handmade efforts, often featuring lace paperwork, flowers and love knots, continued to exist while mass-produced cards flooded the market. Numerous samples of Victorian Valentines are held in the Seddon collection at Manchester Metropolitan University, and in the archives of London stationer Jonathan King at the Museum of London.

This hand-finished Valentine, containing a taxidermy canary, is held in the Museum of London archives.

Reforms to the mail system, and the introduction of the penny post in 1840, produced a further boom in the market. In 1841, some 400,000 Valentines were posted in England. Numbers rose over the years, with 1.2 million cards being processed in London alone during 1871. While many enjoyed the reduced cost and the ease with which items could be sent, others saw the rise of the anonymous Valentine as a cause for concern – parents in particular worried about the difficulty of chaperoning their daughter’s attachments. In January 1867, the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine commented that “The post-office system offers a facility for clandestine correspondence which no respectable father or mother on the European side of the Atlantic would think of without a shudder”.

Perhaps of greater concern was the inception of the ‘Vinegar Valentine’: a card designed to point out faults in the recipient and demonstrate the sender’s desire not to claim their love. Although the nature of the card often lent itself to its immediate destruction, sufficient numbers survive to suggest that Vinegar Valentines were not gender specific.

An 1870s "vinegar Valentine" (intended to be folded over and sealed, the address written on the outside, and sent anonymously through the mail). (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)
An 1870s “vinegar Valentine” (intended to be folded over and sealed, the address written on the outside, and sent anonymously through the mail). (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

This example, sent during the 1870s, states the sender’s refusal to accept the advances of a superficial suitor. Repelled by his “glitter”, the sender rejects the snakelike gentleman, preferring to remain alone than live a “bitter” life in his company. Some cards offered women the opportunity to comment anonymously on personal appearance, with scathing words and demeaning sketches. Others, commenting on the recipient’s habits, reflect societal concerns of the day.

Vinegar Valentine's card, c1875. (Photo by Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & HoveRoyal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)
A vinegar Valentine’s card, c1875, showing a drunken man holding on to a lamp post. The text at the bottom reads: “‘The kiss of the bottle is your heart’s delight,/ And fuddled you reel home to bed every night,/ What care you for damsels, no matter how fair!/ Apart from your liquor, you’ve no love to spare.” (Photo by Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

Published in 1875, as the temperance movement began to spread, this card bears the message “The kiss of the bottle is your heart’s delight, And fuddled you reel home to bed every night, What care you for damsels, no matter how fair! Apart from your liquor, you’ve no love to spare”.

Vinegar Valentine's card, c1875. Vinegar Valentine's card, c1875. (Photo by Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & HoveRoyal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)
A vinegar Valentine’s card, c1875, showing a sad woman. The text at the bottom reads: “‘Pray do you ever mend your clothes/ Or comb your hair? Well, I suppose/ You’ve got no time, for people, say,/ You’re reading novels all the day.” (Photo by Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

Women did not escape the vitriol, and were often mocked for their personality traits and lack of beauty. As literacy rates improved and fears began to be expressed about the education of women, some cards even suggested that reading would prevent the making of a match. Others openly condemned those who campaigned for the enfranchisement of women, suggesting their lack of submission was a barrier to love. Today, these anti-Valentine cards provide invaluable insights into shifting gender expectations.

An illustration of motors and cycles in Kensington High Street, opposite Holland House, London, from the Illustrated London News, 1903. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Commercial cards: adverts and threats

The Valentine card travelled across the Atlantic during the 19th century, but printed cards were often too expensive for the average American. Things changed dramatically in 1913, when the Hall Brothers produced their first Valentine card. Becoming Hallmark cards in 1928, the company is now considered a key player in the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day with more than 1,400 varieties of card now in circulation.

Despite popular belief, not all 20th-century cards featured the romantic symbolism we see today. Some cards employed fruit or animals to suggest lewd intentions, and others were used as marketing opportunities by Walt Disney and McDonalds.

Not all cards were so benign. Overtly racist cards depicted cannibals preparing their loved ones for the pot, claiming to be “all a stew for you”, while others played with cowboy imagery to suggest the recipient’s capture. One card, manufactured during the 1930s, suggests that there is no escape from the sender’s love. The female recipient pictured under attack by a creepy superhero is warned:

You built a wall

So fast and strong,

But with my magic ray

It won’t last long!

An Art Deco mechanical valentine (moving the cape causes the arms to move up and down) from the 1930s. (Photo by Alan Mays)
An Art Deco mechanical valentine from the 1930s. Moving the cape causes the arms to move up and down. (Photo by Alan Mays)

Although an innovative design, with a movable cape, such a card might attract the attention of the authorities if sent today…

One Hallmark card, dating from the 1950s, contains another dark undertone. The sender, depicted as a skunk holding a gun to its head, threatens suicide with the words “I’ll be sunk if you won’t be my valentine”. Although America had passed the National Mental Health Act in 1946 (in response to depression and trauma in soldiers returning from the Second World War), mental illness was not widely discussed and remained a subject of satire for some.

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Today: hearts and flowers?

Although today’s high streets are filled with cards bearing hearts, and overpriced roses fill the vases of every local florist, those of a darker disposition need not despair. A conservation centre in Kent in England continues the vinegary tradition of the Victorians, offering to name a cockroach after an ex-Valentine in return for a small donation.

Read more about the history of love, sex and Valentine’s Day here