The opening issue of Household Words (March 30, 1850) includes an amusing article entitled “Valentine’s Day at the Post-Office,” written by Charles Dickens with his assistant editor, W. H. Wills. Fascinated by the influx of letters passing through the General Post Office in London, Dickens and Wills describe in detail “the sacrifices to the fane of St. Valentine—consisting of hearts, darts, Cupid peeping out of paper-roses, Hymen embowered in hot-pressed embossing, swains in very blue coats and nymphs in very opaque muslin, coarse caricatures and tender verses.” The Valentine’s Day card tradition began in earnest in England in 1840 with the coming of the Penny Post and the prepaid postage stamp, both credited to Rowland Hill.
Prior to this time, postage was high. The receiver paid for the letter, not the sender, as is the practice today. Prepayment was considered a social slur on the recipient. For the working class, a letter could cost more than a day’s wage. Leaving home often met losing touch with one’s family and friends. But that changed on January 10, 1840, opening day of the Penny Post. All mail weighing up to one-half ounce could travel anywhere in the UK for only a penny. The US in 1847 quickly followed with affordable mail and postage stamps.
Postmen may judge them by the lot, they won't have time to count;
They must bring round spades and measures, to poor love-sick souls
Deliver them by bushels, the same as they do coals.
Not only did the number of valentines “vastly amount”; so did the variety of cards delivered by “spades” and “bushels.” In my analysis of Victorian valentines in the Bath Central Library in Bath, UK, I discovered “tender verses” adorned with hearts, cupids, flowers, angels, swains, and nymphs—emissaries of love—and numerous handmade missives. Rather than purchase a ready-made valentine, Victorian men and women often assembled original valentines from materials purchased at a stationer’s shop: lace, bits of mirror, bows and ribbons, seashells and seeds, gold and silver foil appliqués, silk flowers, and clichéd printed mottoes like “Be Mine” and “Constant and True.” Victorian valentines commonly feature churches or church spires, a way to signify honorable intentions and assure a betrothed of fidelity in love. But the “coarse caricatures,” as Dickens and Wills call them, may startle readers today.
Valentines insult a lady as well as a dandy for poor fashion sense: “Pray don’t take offense,/ Nor to anger incline,/ In dress show more sense,/ You queer valentine.” Others tells a suitor he has no chance in courtship: “Oh, what dreary, senseless twaddle/ Issues from his empty noddle,/ Fantastic pubby-booby hence/ I’ll love you, sir, on no pretence.” Not all Victorian valentines are this polite about telling a suitor to butt out: “Don’t think yourself so vastly killing/ Little men I quite despise/ And I never shall be willing/ To accept one of your sighs.”
Valentines tease bachelors about remaining single and urge them to marry: one valentine shows a perfect stocking above a torn one and reads, “High Hose! Or the Inconvenience of an Unmarried life. Never too late to mend”; another features a gentleman “bungling” an attempt to mend his trousers: “For a Bachelors troubles who should care/ He ought to get married they all declare./ If a button comes off, he must sit up in bed,/ And make a sad bungle of needle and thread./ But if he’d take courage and also a wife,/ He’d find ‘twas the happiest day of his life.” When a viewer pulls a tab in this mechanical valentine, the bachelor nods his head in agreement.
Marriage was also ripe for ridicule. In a card entitled “A PEEP THROUGH THE WEDDING RING,” a bride teases her groom: “I think you love me, it is true/ And well, perhaps it may be,/ But if we’re married, say will you,/ Object to nurse the baby.” A novelty valentine, the “Map of Matrimony” literally transforms Victorian courtship into an actual map, scorning the “Land of Spinsters” and making light of the entire courtship process, including “Mountains of Delay Inhabited by Lawyers,” the “Isle of Jealousy,” and The “Port of Hymen”; named after the Greek god associated with matrimony and weddings, the Port of Hymen can be reached via the “Road to Contentment” but only if one can navigate the “Mines of Felicity.” Even the Victorian postman, “hurrying from spot to spot” to deliver “bushels” of valentines to “love-sick souls” by the “spades,” was not exempt from scorn. One “coarse caricature”-style card laughingly reads: “With child like coat of glaring red,/ And hat of felt on empty head,/ In rain or wind compelled to trot,/ Drudge like, hurrying from spot to spot.”
Unlike the Victorian era, insulting valentines have all but vanished from our card shops, and handmade valentines appear most frequently in elementary school classrooms. But just as in Dickens’s time, on Valentine’s Day we depend on the Post Office to deliver our heartfelt wishes by the bushel.
Dr. Catherine Golden is Professor of English at Skidmore College and author of Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing (2009). She spoke at the museum in January 2010 and you can view her talk on the museums YouTube channel.