Victorian Valentine: Collecting Expressions of Love





“Sometimes I am sure that
the term, incurable collector,
was created just for me!”



Victorian card

In a variation of the hidden name, or calling card style, this small, embossed card is embellished with a die-cut, or scrap, showing a wedding couple and a poem. The scrap does not lift, as expected, to reveal their name, so perhaps it was used  for the purpose of the modern “At Home” cards, and would have been personalized.

Victorian stereotypes of stiffly corseted women, mustachioed men with formal demeanor, and rigid rules of etiquette for both, can be happily disregarded when it comes to romance!  Expressions of love from that period clearly demonstrate that Victorians were often exceptionally sentimental and romantic – and, that they were fond of showing it in numerous special ways. My personal collection explores the history and evolution of that passion, as a large part of it evolved during that fascinating era. During the reign of Queen Victoria, some of the most dramatic events in our modern development occurred.  From the early nineteenth century, through the Industrial Revolution, and into the modern period of the early twentieth century, great changes affected the way everyone lived.  History, customs, ideas and ideals – all are reflected in an amazing social documentary, which I think of as a veritable chronicle of love.

antique scrap

Love’s Footfall is a wonderful gift booklet, full of gleeful cherubs and romantic imagery; published by the company of Ernest Nister, London, England, and Nuremburg, Germany, 1880s.


As a new contributor to the online Victoriana Magazine, I am honored to share my love of this subject with you.    In the next issue, February 2007, I will focus on the incredible world of Valentines.  Here, I attempt to rationalize my passionate collecting by showing related objects I have acquired to enhance the things I love.   My collections are largely paper, and the world of ephemera is one I hope to explore within these pages; however, my love for Valentines provided the excuse to search for many other romantic objects.  Sometimes I am sure that the term, incurable collector, was created just for me!   

The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers was a popular guide for Victorian young ladies, composed of flower symbolism and poetry. Tussy Mussy bouquets, often created to camouflage body odor or foul smells of the street, became messages unto themselves. Flowers became a means of hidden declaration, ardor, rendezvous, or any other sentiment difficult to verbalize -- unbridled by general rules of refinement.


In reality, Valentines became my excuse to collect all manner of things! A fascination with their floral messages led me to the poetic Language of Flowers, and another collection evolved. Antique books on the subject, and period tussy mussy holders became a new focus as I envisioned their use to showcase exhibitions and photographic projects!  Grouping complementary items together provided a glimpse how they would have been originally enjoyed, and provided a new dimension to the pieces themselves. Romantic Spencerian penmanship guided me to sentimental ladies’ albums, and the tender appeal of folk art opened doors to unique friendship memorabilia.  Marriage  – the culmination of the process– has a focus on certificates and invitations, photographs and memorabilia, and even glorious French wedding domes. The process took on a life of its own, the totality almost assuming greater significance. 


Victoria and Albert Wreath of Conversation [8” x 11”] The ultimate in games of affection --completely hand-painted, it is elegant in composition as well as in symbolism.  Each flower lifts to reveal a response to the questions on the central wheel. A player would spin the circle, and, by lifting the flap opposite the pointer, would provide an answer to the question proposed.  The embossed emblem at the top is that of Queen Victoria.  It may have been a parlor game created to coincide with her engagement to Prince Albert in 1839, or her wedding in 1840.


The excitement grew as my process began to expand exponentially, but beautifully. I could now tell a story through complementary items – from fans to lace, from friendship canes to pressed flower albums of the Grand Tour – it began to reveal the flavor of the people who made, gave, and received the loving expressions in which I had immersed myself.  Naïve folk art, with its surprisingly complex puzzle purse, cameo-embossed lace paper embellished with faux-jewels, childish illustrations by Kate Greenaway and Frances Brundage – all fit so perfectly in the context of my collection. An unlikely group, but they became cohesive for, within my hands, I could actually hold the evolution of my subject, and it all made sense.


The dancing maidens and charming children depicted by the English artist Kate Greenaway, circa 1870, have come to represent the epitome of Victorian illustration.  These frolicsome ladies with garlands are part of a series which utilized several different color palettes.  It was executed both in the chromolithographic process, as well as the cameo-embossed paper, in the  style of Wedgwood pottery, so popular at  the time.


Fidelity represents the most sophisticated quality of these cards, which would have been used individually, or pasted on the interior page of an elegant lace paper Valentine.  Occasionally, a majestic Valentine may have a small envelope affixed someplace, which opens to reveal a wondrous card such as this, circa 1850.


Finding the missing pieces of my puzzle, sharing the story of people who were just like us, and touching the fingerprints of love – that became the real collection.  No longer limited, it expanded to encompass a wide range of expressions of love and marriage; in fact, many of the same manufacturers produced mourning cards, bookmarks, and blanks for people to draw or embroider their own personalized love tokens.  My passion became a pursuit of the ways in which people shared their innermost thoughts and dreams – and I became their archivist. As treasures were brought out of attics and albums, and inheritors sought pecuniary gratification, my archives became the repository of love and romance; and I became obliged to preserve their love for other generations to savor. In addition to the pure pleasure of an enhanced collection, a distinct justification is that the sheer volume and range provided sufficient examples to enable scholarly research, making a solid contribution to the available knowledge on the subject.


The famed American Valentine entrepreneur, Esther Howland, felt that sentiments on Valentines should remain personal, and private.  For that reason, she generally pasted a tiny motto card inside her creations, rather than on the front.  This example is inside an elaborate silvered lace card, and is especially elegant.


Small paper gifts known as tokens of love, or tokens of affection, have long been given as special gifts. The wife love token, from 1830 - 40s, is a witty, perhaps satirical one with a message to make you smile!

The artful skeletonizing of leaves was a popular Victorian craft.  This Token of Affection is embellished with dried flowers and ferns, and the word, Recuerdo, which translates to Keepsake, or Memories, formed from delicately spliced straw, instead of the metallic Dresden paper which might have decorated items of that period.  It   is part of a fascinating collection of memorabilia from Mexico, circa 1880.

Handpainted Token of Love -- This delicate card bears all the subtle elements of love and romance.  Genteel calligraphy presents a tender message; careful artwork denotes unspoken elegance, and the gilded border reflects richness and simplicity. The rose signifies love and the myositis speaks its other name: forget-me-not.


Embroidered Watch Paper -- Inserted into a pocket watch, this late eighteenth century example would have served a two-fold purpose: it would protect the mechanism from dust, but more importantly, each time its owner checked the time, he would be reminded of his beloved!  They were sometimes made from fabric or paper, and were a popular token of love during the early Victorian era.  This one, from the collection of Frank Staff, noted Valentine scholar, was embroidered upon fine silk gauze and depicts two love birds.

After several articles appeared in the late Victoria Magazine, I was encouraged to create reproductions of some Valentines – a small business which I still pursue.  My accumulated archive of ephemera – collated by my devoted husband, has now evolved into a searchable archive of love and romance, marriage and family, nature and holidays. All the bits and pieces -- and the many treasures – we gathered compulsively at antique shows and online over thirty years, have merged into something meaningful.  

I have always believed that the collecting process has three aspects: acquisition, ownership, and the greatest pleasure – sharing.  Through numerous projects, I have been able to share the wonderful imagery within this expanded collection, making it available for others to enjoy.  My projects have ranged from a collectors’ video to some amazing Christmas stamps for the nation of Gibraltar; seeing my die-cuts and postcards transformed has been emotionally rewarding.  Five exciting new books for crafters, using my antique and vintage ephemera – from labels to Valentines, birds to butterflies, and angels to Santa Claus – have truly placed my personal archive into the mainstream. Working on a home computer, someone can now adapt or combine antique images to create a new, personalized artwork.  Sharing is especially gratifying!

So this first article is an exploration into the convoluted mind of this collector, as much as Victorian romance. I have learned that the emotions of Victorian people are not too different from people in the twenty-first century, that the heart is unchanging, and love is the constant.

Left: Silver-Gilt Love Token Box -- Elaborate silver betrothal boxes have been a European tradition since medieval times.  This silver and gilt Victorian version is in the form of a locket, opening to contain a special memento. The design of the heart - love, and the crown - is similar to the Scottish luckenbooth, which is usually depicted by two hearts and a crown, representing betrothal, affection, and friendship.

About the author:  Nancy Rosin is  President of the National Valentine Collector’s Association and Vice-President of the Ephemera Society of America. Her web site, Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury, contains a wealth of information about the history of valentines, information about the National Valentine Collectors Association, plus Nancy Rosin’s posters, antique and vintage valentines, collectors’ video, and reproduction greetings.