A selection of Victorian Valentine's Day cards went on show in 2015 at Manchester Metropolitan University. The cards, often handmade, featured lace, pressed grass and Valentine’s jokes. One card, titled 'The Bark of Love', featured a fairy in a gilded carriage drawn by two swans. Another, rather saucy card, featured what is possibly a pair of Victorian undergarments, with the message, "I think of you with inexpressible delight".


The cards were drawn from the Laura Seddon Collection at the university. The collection includes more than 50,000 cards, of which just over 1,000 are Valentine's. It was amassed over 25 years, and was donated to the university in 1991.

(All images © Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections)

A Valentine's day scented sachet showing a brown dog sat up on its hind legs.
Sometimes scented sachets were sent rather than cards. This one shows a faithful dog, and dates from the 1870s.
A Valentine's day card depicting a pair of red trousers, a wreath, a robin and the words "I think of you with inexpressible delight".
This possibly rather saucy card was also manufactured by Dobbs, in the 1860s.
A Valentine's day card showing a fair reclining in a carriage drawn by swans.
This card features a fairy in a gilded carriage drawn by two swans, and was published by J Fairburn of London in the 1840s. In 1835 nearly 60,000 Valentine's were sent by post, according to Laura Seddon, and the postmaster general was asked to arrange that “the usual very moderate sum be allowed to the letter carriers for refreshment to enable them to get through the exertions of the next few days”.
A Valentine's day card showing a the profile of a man and woman looking at each other.
This card, published by the firm Dobbs, features a reversing message contrasting courtship and matrimony. It is made of scraps and lace paper, with a handwritten message. Paper Valentine's were often handmade, and could be folded to hide secret messages. Many commercially produced cards also included handmade elements.
A Valentine's day card showing an embroidered green heart and scenery including a dog.
This card was made by John Windsor and Sons, who produced much of the early embossed paper used for mourning cards. Their Valentine's featured elaborate gilt and silver lace paper, and lavish floral decoration.
A Valentine's day card showing two young women complete with decorative pressed grass and scraps of lace.
This card by Joseph Mansell featured pressed grasses, as well as scraps and lace paper.
A heavily embroidered Valentine's day card containing a verse that begins: "To the one I love".
This card by Benjamin Sulman features an embroidered insert. Victorian Valentine's were sent anonymously, and often carried no message to the recipient – it was expected that the Valentine itself would be message enough.
A Valentine's day card showing a lady wearing a stripy dress with a full skirt.
Another printed Valentine featuring a lady in a silk crinoline. The card was made by Thos Dean and Son in the 1860s.
A Valentine's day card that utilises a mixture of words and pictures to write a message.
A rebus card from 1864 that uses pictures instead of words. Translated, it starts: “Adored one, In silence I must bear the burthen of my love. I dare not speak, else I could tell how I adore thee”.
A Valentine's card showing a devil spearing an old lady on a pitchfork.
With the introduction of colour printing and cheaper production costs, some rude and vulgar cards started to appear alongside the elegant lacy confections. This one shows the devil using his form to torment an “old maid”.
A delicate lace Valentine's day card depicting the words: "Love all for Jesus, but Jesus for himself."
A religiously themed card, harking back to the early legend of St Valentine, which claims he was martyred by the Romans about 270AD after being imprisoned by the Emperor Claudius for performing forbidden marriages. The story has it that he wrote letters from prison to the Emperor’s daughter, which led to him being adopted as the patron saint of lovers.

This gallery was first published on HistoryExtra in 2015