Though popularized in the Victorian era, Valentine’s Day had been celebrated for centuries prior. Hand-made paper cards from the mid-17th century dot a few museums around the world, but this isn’t a comprehensive history on a holiday that is loved and loathed in equal (perhaps not-equal…) measure. It’s about a certain era we all know and love. That’s right. The disco era.
Okay, not really, though women’s fashions did start to channel the regency. That’s a post for another day.
By 1826, according to Hone’s Every-day Book, “Two hundred thousand letters beyond the usual daily average, annually pass through the twopenny post-office in London on St. Valentine’s Day.” That’s quite an impressive amount of mail for the population of the time! At the volume, the holiday was by no means new. It was certainly much older than this era, but let’s try to focus on something other than poor mail clerks trying to handle nearly a quarter million letters, all by hand, on one day alone.
The earliest printed card known to exist is from January 1797, and was printed in the common method of plate dipped in ink, pressed on paper, and the resulting image painted by hand. We have one John Fairburn of 146, Minories, London to thank for this treasure, and he is the producer. The text on the image to the right is difficult to read, but it states:
Since on this ever Happy day,
All Nature’s full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design,
‘Tis but to be your Valentine.
Rather a sweet little poem.
But shortly before this, the popular type of card was one that, in many ways, brings back memories for those of us in high school in the 90’s or earlier, back in the days when passing a note to a friend in class or when you didn’t have time to stop and talk in the hall, and instead had to do this thing called write a note by hand, and then fold it small enough to hand off. Oh, the days before digital leashed, when a note was something tangible and personal, from the hand of a friend or significant other to yours. They meant something. They took a bit more thought since you couldn’t hit a back button. And then they took a little time to fold. Even the silliest one from a friend was something we wanted to keep because they meant something.
Well, people in days of many yores ago appreciated the extra streps of a folded note too, something beyond the wax seal and stamp in place of licking a bitter envelope.
This charming painted heart note, known as a puzzle purse, took considerable time and effort. At each step of folding, the giver had to draft his words, then paint the images he wanted. Some of them are just so precious, including a small heart with a fairly detailed arrow. You can read the entire text of the note, fold by fold, at this link from the Postal Heritage Museum. It remained one of the more popular note types to pass to a lover for many decades to come.
If you would like to try your hand at a regency-esque Valentine that will bring a smile to even the most hardened of non-fans of this day, pull up a chair, a whole ream of paper, some wine for the headache you’re about to receive, and see if you can figure out this very complicated design. This is the unfolding process of the 1790 puzzle purse above. Surely the reverse must result in a how-to.
Or you can spare yourself the headache and try this simpler design popular from the Victorian era onward (this video shows the process easier, and this one shows several lovely ones), and ponder how much men and ladies of the regency era may have loved the romance of Valentine’s Day or loathed to participate. There are some things that are unlikely to change, though, thankfully, someone devised an easier way to make a type of puzzle purse so that we may participate to some extent in this regency tradition.
Have a very happy Valentine’s Day, whatever you plan to do today.