I hope you all enjoyed Valentine's Day. With the Greetings Card Association estimating 21 million Valentine’s Day cards sent in 2015 in the UK, I wonder how 2016 will compare? This blog is about the fascinating history of Valentine's Day and its associated gift and card giving.

Image courtesy of the Postal Museum.

Not all Valentine cards were expressions of love… such cards showed pictures of Victorian ladies on the front but open up to reveal spiteful verses such as:

'You fancy you display such grace
But how is that with such a face
'Your waddling walk too, tis no use,
You look but like a silly goose'.

Royal Mail played a key part in the emergence of the tradition of Valentine’s Day cards over the past 500 years, including the boom in cards following the introduction of the Penny Post in the 1840's.  You can take a look at their online gallery of historic Valentines cards here.

Timeline of Valentine’s Day cards

  • 1760s – the practice of sending Valentines gifts began to be replaced by decorated / ornate letters
  • 1790 – earliest archived Valentines card (handmade)
  • 1797 – earliest archived commercial / printed Valentines card
  • 1840 – Introduction of penny post drives widespread practice of sending cards
  • 1840 – 1890 - The golden age of Valentine's cards with large numbers being sent
  • 1936 – GPO introduce Valentine’s telegrams

“Valentines” gifts and letters had long been sent in upper-class European society, but the practice of sending Valentines “cards” in February first arose in Britain in the last years of the 18th Century.

The earliest surviving Valentines card in the Postal Museum’s - formerly the British Postal Museum and Archive - collection dates from 1790. It is in the form of a fold out “puzzle purse” that reveals romantic verses. These were known as a 'puzzle purse' or courtship envelope - similar to paper fortune tellers today. The puzzle is to unfold it in the right way to reveal the hidden verses.

The oldest printed card in the world, dating from 1797, is a delicate piece that has been pierced to produce a lace effect in the corners and is decorated with cupids, doves and flowers which were probably hand coloured after printing.

The golden age of Valentine's cards was between the 1840's and 1890's, when they were sent in vast numbers. Some had scented sachets; others were pop-up or musical cards. Others had puzzles or exploded like Christmas crackers. The most expensive had up to 700 pieces.

However, the rise of affectionate Valentines cards was not without controversy. The introduction of cheap postage sent shockwaves through prim and proper Victorian society; private correspondence could now be sent cheaply, meaning anyone could express their love freely. Blackwoods Magazine said…

“The post-office system offers a facility for clandestine correspondence which no respectable father or mother on the European side of the Atlantic would think of without a shudder”

Love tokens had been exchanged by the upper and middle classes in large numbers for several centuries, and less commonly before then. It was the popularisation of the practice – driven by the introduction of the penny post – that shocked polite society.

Vinegar Valentines' were the darker side of the exponential growth of Valentine’s post. These were abusive or critical Valentine's cards designed to make fun of the recipient. They consisted of an insulting drawing and a rude poem and were usually anonymous.

A huge range of insults were available: you could accuse people of being drunk, ugly, obese or stuck-up. Before the introduction of Uniform Penny Postage, the recipient would also have to pay to receive the card, adding insult to injury.

The postal service helped preserve the anonymity of the card’s sender, for then, as now, it was usual for valentines to be sent without a signature. The terms ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘everyone’ appear frequently in the insults.

Few ‘Vinegar Valentines’ survive today because most people naturally threw them away rather than preserving them. They later spilled out from Valentine's Day and were sold all year round.

Flora Thompson, in her thinly-fictionalised memoir, Lark Rise to Candleford, recalls receiving a particularly vicious example. Featuring a crudely-drawn printed caricature of a postmistress (reflecting her occupation), the Valentine included a cruel verse and personalised insulting inscription commenting on her perceived ugliness. Thompson records that it was promptly thrown into the fire and kept a secret.

Stephen Agar, Managing Director of Consumer and Network Access, said: “The introduction of universal postage in the early Victorian era led to a blossoming of romantic communication across the UK. The cards featured in the Postal Museum’s collection epitomise the enduring nature of love and the historical development of Valentine’s Day. Royal Mail is proud to have played a part in delivering these touching messages over the centuries.“

The emergence of February 14 as Valentine’s Day is thought to be a fusion of the pagan Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia and the Christian Saint’s day established in 496 AD. The feast day itself became associated with romantic love in the fourteenth Century due to Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporaries, who invented a number of legends related to Saint Valentine and romance. Chaucer’s key work was The Parlement of Foules – which posited St Valentine’s Day as the occasion when birds gathered together to choose their mate.

Now the reminder for our frugal followers - postage stamp prices are set to rise again soon and we predict an eventual phasing out of the 2nd Class service, but it is still worthwhile considering stocking up on stamps before the price increase by investing in generic stamps market either 1st or 2nd but showing no price. These generally remain unchanged and cover postage at the rate shown regardless of the price paid for the stamps. And in conclusion - for our frugaleurs, this is a wise time to consider delivery or distribution costs of whatever items you have chosen to sell. Anything that can fit in an envelope and go through the smallest postal slot seems like a safe-ish bet to me, so I'm off to don my thinking cap, as these old photos of Valentine's Day cards gave me another idea. wink

Compiled from information provided by www.royalmailgroup.com/

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