St. Valentine's Day in the nineteenth century: A display at the Bodleian Library

3 February 2010

cupid_small-01In short, February has arrived; and old and young, wags and lovers, belles and beaux, begin to look impatiently for the advent of St. Valentine!’ (Hood’s Magazine, February 1846)

This February, the Bodleian Library showcases thirty seven items which illustrate how St. Valentine’s Day was marked in the nineteenth century. The display of valentines from the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera aims both to show a wide range of nineteenth-century valentines and to illustrate their complex manufacturing process.

The valentines come in many forms, from exquisite creations of lace paper, silk, scraps, tinselling and artificial flowers accompanied by elaborate poetry to humble woodcuts with prosaic and occasionally insulting verses. Some valentines were home-made tokens of love, but others were produced by many hands in manufactories where skill and care were allied to business acumen.

Although dating from the end of the eighteenth century, the printed valentine is essentially a nineteenth-century phenomenon. Valentines were eagerly awaited on 14 February both before, but especially after, the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840. At the height of their popularity, around 450,000 valentines had passed through the London Post Office alone, as estimated by the Postmaster-General in his 1863 annual report.

Alongside a wide range of valentines, also on display are publishers’ and tinsellers’ stockbooks, games of love, and even a pincushion heart. Highlights of the display include:

  • Collection of Valentines 1822 to 1850 in two volumes - Valentine publisher’s stockbooks formerly owned by Andrew White Tuer. Spanning nearly thirty years, they reveal a switch in the (anonymous) printer’s production methods from engraving to lithographic printing around 1830, and the introduction of embossing around 1832.
  • To a bachelor with fondest love - A novelty valentine, printed in gold, incorporating buttons, thread and needles. Published by Angus Thomas between 1870 and 1880.
  • Pincushion heart mounted in glazed case - Love-token with lace frill, decorated with patriotic Union Jacks, a woven-silk cross, and colourful beads held in place by pins. Possibly dating from the second Boer War (1899-1902), when disabled soldiers are known to have produced similar pin-cushions as a means of rehabilitation.  
  • Curious Hieroglyphick Valentine - Hand-coloured valentine in the form of a rebus, or word puzzle, dating from 1840s.The pictograms had to be deciphered to unlock its expressions of adoration. 
  • Don’t get too proud when this you see - ‘Comic’ valentine, with illustration of an ugly bachelor, and a dismissive verse beginning: ‘Don’t get too proud when this you see, / For this is your portrait drawn by me…’ Stencil-coloured woodcut, dating between 1830 and 1850.

makingvalentinesmed_web-02Julie Anne Lambert, Librarian of the John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Library said: ‘Ephemera give us fascinating insights into the lives of our predecessors and are increasingly recognized as essential primary source for scholarly research. The current selection of valentines on display at the Bodleian is a good example of the rich source of information that ephemera can offer to social historians and researchers. ’

Valentines form just one of 680 subject headings in the John Johnson Collection which is one of the world’s most important collections of printed ephemera – material which was not intended to survive its immediate purpose. The collection contains over 1.5 million items spanning a broad range of social and printing history. Although the earliest item dates from 1508 and there are holdings of 16th and 17th century ephemera, the strength of the collection lies in its 18th, 19th and early 20th century material.

The ephemera collection was assembled by John de Monins Johnson between 1923 and 1956 and was housed at the Oxford University Press until its transfer to the Bodleian Library in 1968. Johnson collected retrospectively, establishing 1939 as his cut-off date. There is also a separate sequence, not yet fully available, of post-1960 ephemera.


    1-27 February 2010
    Proscholium, Bodleian Library
    Opening Hours
    Mon-Fri 9.00am-10.00pm
    Sat 9.00 am-4.30pm
    Sun 11.00am-5.00pm
    Admission free
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