Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Vinegar Valentines & Space Rock

Well, we've made it through another Valentine's Day and a meteor so what better way to celebrate than with a belated blog post on Valentine's Day...after all, nothing like a hurtling mass of space rock coming at you to truly appreciate your valentine!  A couple of years ago I designed and introduced an education program about Valentine's Day for the historic site where I work.  In the research, I found valentine cards and their history quite a bit more interesting then the difficult to pin down origins of the holiday itself. Now, if you want the history of Valentine's Day, which is seriously sketchy then perhaps watching this video with a somewhat disturbing screen shot will help...or scar you.

Now back to those valentine cards and their interesting history.  Well, valentines in some form have been around for quite awhile.  Historians have identified the first valentines as love letters which use the term valentine to identify themselves or the recipient...such as, "your beloved valentine". 
ca.1415 - Letter from Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife
while imprisoned in the Tower of London , British Museum

In England, the celebration of love during February via the fancy-schmancy written word really didn't get going until the 17th and 18th centuries.  At that time a valentine might be  just a fancy love letter with designs and drawings decorating the paper or an actual printed note of verse. Later on, silhouette-cut cards, puzzle cards and rebuses seemingly became more common as there are some extant examples.  

Silhouette Valentine's Day Card - c. 1790 - The British Postal Museum & Archive
Through Flora's gayest, freshest bowers
The bees, that hover over the flowers
From the brightest, loveliest neatest
Know wisely where to choose the sweetest
No wonder then that instinct true
Conducted them to-night to you.

Often cited as the "oldest" valentine card (not quite true as the one above illustrates) is this puzzle purse valentine c. 1790.  Puzzle purses were not only used for Valentine's Day cards, but also to decoratively fold baptismal papers and as a past time for refined young ladies. Much like origami, these folded tokens of love were real works of art and geometry.  One of these days soon I'd like to make my own puzzle purse...but reading the instructions sort of hurts my brain.  If you'd like to make a true puzzle purse, visit Nancy Rosin's page...she's actually put together a tutorial based on extant examples in her own collection.  If you'd like to try it with a more modern...and less mathematical approach, our favorite crafty tycoon Martha Stewart got all late 18th century on Valentine's Day here.  Here's the not-so-oldest valentine, which is part of the British Postal Museum & Archive's collection.

Not to be outdone by the British, here's a super sweet example (below) from the United States, Pennsylvania to be exact.  This one was sent to Barbara Hoffman from Peter Shirk and surely must have melted her heart since the two married on Valentine's Day in 1832.  All together now...awww, that's so sweet!
Lancaster Historical Society - Puzzle Valentine, ca. 1831

If that's not enough sappiness American-style for you, then check out Lancaster County Historical Society's virtual exhibit entitled "Love Letters"...those Quakers were quaking with LUV!  But, the puzzle purses don't end there...below is another example from Pennsylvania although little is known 
about the sender or recipient.  A couple of interns at the Historic Bethlehem Partnership wrote a blog post about this charming valentine and decided to name the author Mr. Drama because of his...well, dramatic approach to love.  Elizabeth Fry, the recipient was either a very lucky girl to have such a romantically minded beau or she was being stalked by her own Mr. Collins.   
"If you refuse to be my wife it will deprive me of my LIFE/ Pale death at last must stand my friend and bring my sorrow to an end/ Thou art the girl and only maid that hath my tender heart BETRA'D/ Nor never shall my heart have ease until our heart are joind like these." 
It was the year 1821, when Mr. Drama made his desperate plea for Elizabeth Fry to be his valentine. Below, is another American example of a puzzle purse valentine...this one sold for $4,370.00 at a Christie's auction back in 1999.

19th Century Puzzle Valentine,
American School - Christie's

Not all valentines were as sweet as Mr. Drama's or Mr. Shirk's...there was an entire trade in venomous valentines and you were quite as likely to get a "humorous" one as a sweet one. In this case, I'd say "humorous" applied mostly to the sender and not the recipient. These not-so-sweet valentines were often known as "vinegar valentines" and are found among both store bought and handmade cards.  In the Houghton Library collection at Harvard University there are some amazing hand-drawn vinegar valentines right alongside the sappy ones. Here's a particularly catchy one!  This sweetly illustrated verse reads...
ca.1850 -1860, UK - Houghton Library, Harvard University

"You nasty and ugly and crabbed old scold/ I shall pity your husband, poor man!/ If e'er you inveigle one into your snare/ which doubtless will if you can./ But I will not marry a vixen like you/ So do not hope me, to ensnare/ Who know if I wed you we should not/  Be a very affectionate pair."
Below is a particularly gruesome and rare example of a vinegar valentine circa the 1860's.  Created during the American Civil War this piece of ephemera seems callous and cold to our modern eyes.  Could you imagine sending this one to your valentine? See this fascinating article in Collectors Weekly for more vinegar valentines and their history.

Now for the intellectually minded romantic there was the rebus...basically a pictogram puzzle, they were often used to represent surnames during the Middle Ages.  Rebuses were commonly utilized in the celebration of Valentine's Day and these romantic missives were usually handmade.  Take a look at the examples below and see if you can decipher the messages!  I'm terrible at decoding rebuses so all I can do is wish you luck! 

Chetam's Library - early 19th century rebus

Valentine's Day Rebus dated February 14th, 1820
Photograph - Mike Welton

Well, that's about it for this post...hope you had better luck with the rebus puzzles than I did! Here's to surviving another Valentine's Day and a big ol' hurtling space rock!  With that I leave you with this riveting meteor footage...by the way, anyone notice how Russians are so used to crashing meteors that no one even pulls over to watch or turns down the crazy techno dance mix! 


  1. Delightful! Absolutely delightful! I had no knowledge of Vinegar Valentines, Rebus, or the Puzzle Purse Valentine. I am amazed at the beauty and detail involved and the skill of so many to produce such a thing. Tonya, why are you not working at the Smithsonian - your knowledge base and intellect are worthy of it! Lucky we to have you hear. Cheers and applause!!!

  2. Thank you Susan! I had to hold some stuff back to save for next Valentine's day...then you'll get to hear about the mother of the Valentine card! I bet they don't have any fun at the Smithsonian...right? ;)