Elegant women in elegant gowns, their images set off by delicate lace paper by Mansell or Dobbs: typical valentine cards – or were they? After looking at thousands of British valentines in the John Johnson Collection and the online collections of the Museum of London, it would seem that the answer is ‘not really.’ Certainly there are some, but there are far more examples of flowers and birds, cupids and temples than realistic damsels. Perhaps purchasers fought shy of representing their loved one with a woman with different colour eyes or hair, or surpassing her in beauty. Perhaps the Victorians preferred the symbolism of flowers or the intricate concoctions of lacy elaborate valentines.
The heyday of the Victorian valentine in the 1850s and 1860s coincided with the emergence of the crinoline. Even with ladies of high class, the hooped petticoats were frequently the butt of humour.
Somewhat surprisingly, crinolines were worn by all strata of society – an irresistible temptation to the publishers of ‘comic’ or ‘vinegar valentines. By far the greater number of ‘fashion’ related valentines in the John Johnson Collection are of this type.
Hats and bonnets, parasols, breeches, & rouge all were fair game for the engravers and versifiers of these cruel valentines. Aimed at the lower classes, men reproached women for trying to appear too fine, for falsifying their appearance. The ‘dasher’ of the title is portrayed below, with the lines I’d sooner drown and end my life / Than have a dasher for a wife.’
But men did not escape. The most obvious targets were dandies, fops and swells, or lady-killers!
However caricaturised, however cruel, these vinegar valentines give us as much (or more) insight into the fashion (and language) of the time than the beautiful idealised and idolised elegant maidens of high society.
Both form the subject of our new Pinterest page, in association with the National Valentine Collectors Association (USA) and their wonderful and indefatigable President, Nancy Rosin.
Among the last batch of John Sayers’ wonderful donation of ocean liner ephemera is an intriguing file of Pinbacks and Mirrors. Here John contextualises one of the mirrors.
This image is a relatively common Second War postcard view of the RMS Queen Mary, the famous passenger ship known as the ‘Grey Ghost’ for her speed and elusiveness while trooping. But this image is the front side of a purse mirror. Why is it on a purse mirror?
At the end of the Second War, the Queen Mary and her Cunard running mates, Queen Elizabeth and Aquitania, began to unwind the wartime carrying process by bringing troops back from Europe to America and Canada. After the First War, one of the popular gifts for soldiers to bring home to a loved one was a handkerchief printed with the caption “The Ship That Brought Me Home” and an illustration of the liner on which they travelled. Several examples are included in the Sayers Collection.
For the Second War, it appears that a favourite gift may have been a mirror with an image of the ship which carried the soldier home. But there was also another possible element in this postwar story – War Brides. In the immediate post-Second War period, all three of these ships brought women who had married American and Canadian soldiers while they were stationed in Europe.
There were thousands of War Brides, and all the menus saved by a War Bride on July 4, 1946 on board the Queen Mary are elsewhere in the Sayers Collection. The highlight which ties that day together is a printed message from the captain welcoming the passengers to “…the country of your adoption”.
So, it may also be that these mirrors were purchased from the respective onboard Gift Shops on the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and Aquitania by some of the War Brides. It would be a logical purchase – feminine, useful, easy to pack or put in a purse, and relatively inexpensive for limited budgets. And it would capture for their memory the image of the ship on which they travelled, still in its wartime livery before being restored to the normal Cunard colours for regular passenger service.
Ephemera can kindle not only our own memories, but also an insight to the lives of others.
This material, and a vast quantity of other ephemera capturing social, shipping, historical, and commercial information in The Sayers Collection, continues to migrate across the Atlantic to the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library.
There are 27 boxes of Christmas cards in the John Johnson Collection and a further 7 of Christmas cards: trade. Christmas cards are also represented in our Albums, notably in a Jonathan King stock book, a S. Hildersheimer & Co. sample album (1880-81), and in a beautiful Hildesheimer & Faulkner competition album (1881-1882). This post aims to contextualise some of these cards.
The Victorians are often credited with (or blamed for) inventing the modern Christmas. Before the Victorian era there was no continuing tradition of celebrating Christmas. In the church calendar Easter was the more important festival. However, as most Christmas celebrations have their roots in traditional, even ancient, British and European customs, the Victorian Christmas was in reality an amalgam of novelty and nostalgia.
The Christmas card, however, was a true Victorian invention. The commercial Christmas card can be dated precisely to 1843, to a commission by Henry Cole (1808–1882, later knighted). Cole had worked with Rowland Hill on the Penny Post (1840) and was later famed for his contributions to the Great Exhibition and to the founding of the South Kensington Museum (subsequently the V&A) of which he was the first Director. The card was designed by John Callcott Horsley (1817–1903) and departs from the intricate lace paper and elaborate composition of the contemporary and well-established valentine. The hand-coloured design encapsulates the central elements of the Victorian Christmas in a pseudo-triptych. It shows a wealthy family toasting the viewer, flanked by two scenes of charitable giving to the poor. It is notably secular. Sadly, we do not have an example in the John Johnson Collection, so I refer you to the V&A’s excellent online article about the card.
Despite good sales of the Cole–Horsley card (1,000 copies were lithographed and hand-coloured and those surplus to Cole’s personal needs were sold at his own shop, Felix Summerly’s Home Office, for the princely sum of a shilling each), the next commercial British Christmas card was not produced until 1848. In the 1860s, Christmas cards were typically similar to visiting cards, with scalloped edges and small embossed images of robins, holly or flowers. Note headings with similar designs embossed at the top were also popular at this time with matching scalloped envelopes.
It was not until the 1870s that the tradition of sending cards was finally established, coinciding with the flowering of colour printing (in the form of chromolithography). The halfpenny postage for unsealed correspondence boosted sales of Christmas cards and marked the birth of the postcard in Britain. The Post Office first asked the public to ‘Post early for Christmas’ in 1881, and in 1882 The London Reader still referred to Christmas cards as the ‘latest development … of late years.’
The newest cards from publishers such as Marcus Ward, Hildesheimer and Faulkner (both famed for their superior artwork), Sulman, and Rimmel (whose offerings were often scented sachets) were eagerly awaited and discussed in the press. Cards were usually single rather than folded sheets with printed verses and space for handwritten messages on the back.
In the 1870s to 1880s, they became more complex, sometimes incorporating lace paper, decorative scraps, mechanical devices (cards with paper ‘springs’ to create a three-dimensional effect, or with strings to activate moveable parts or pop-ups), and gold and silver printing. They were the province of the wealthy, but were less expensive than valentines.
Marcus Ward’s artists included Walter Crane (brother of its artistic director) and Kate Greenaway. Several publishers ran competitions for card design or artistic arrangement of cards in the albums that were so popular among women.
It is surprising that, in such a pious age, the imagery of most Christmas cards was not religious (although the accompanying verses sometimes were).
Certainly there were some nativity scenes, angels, crosses with flowers or religious sentiments, but these were well outnumbered by images of children, Father Christmases, wintry scenes, flowers (often looking forward to spring rather than winter), robins, food and anthropomorphic animals and birds.
Humorous cards were also common. Did the Victorians find the secular nature of most of their Christmas cards odd? There is little evidence that they did. ‘The diffusion among one’s friends and relatives of things so well adapted to cultivate taste is a real Christmas Charity’ wrote Thomas Hood about Marcus Ward’s latest cards in the journal Fun. Church attendance (and charitable giving) would have been taken for granted, and the secular and the sacred seem to have co-existed comfortably.
An invaluable contemporary account of Christmas cards is this extra number of The Studio, 1894.
The Christmas card has continued in popularity, although the flights and fancies of Victorian invention and paper engineering have given way to much simpler, folded cards. A few years ago it was almost unthinkable that the Christmas card might disappear, despite the secularisation of greetings as well as images on some cards in order to avoid causing offence. However, environmental concerns and the viable alternative of the e-Card may result in its decline. As Librarian of the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera (in the Bodleian Library), I find a gentle irony in the gradual substitution of the ephemeral by the e-phemeral!
We are very privileged to have a guest post by Dr Terry Hale from the University of Hull. An expert on annuals, this festive post explores a little-known corner of the John Johnson Collection.
Despite the considerable level of academic interest in Victorian literary culture, much of it in recent years focusing on sensation fiction, the more ephemeral publications of the era – notably, Christmas Annuals, the closely-related Summer Numbers/Annuals, and even, starting in the early 1880s, the Shilling Shocker – have fared much less well. This is all the more surprising given that such ephemeral productions, though looking back to such relatively well-documented forms as the literary annuals, gift books, and keepsakes of the 1820s and 30s, were largely a product of the same forces that gave rise to Victorian sensationalism or, in the case of those productions aimed at juvenile readers, an attempt to mitigate and channel those forces in more wholesome directions.
A large part of the problem is, of course, that such ephemeral productions have simply not survived. By and large, readers discarded such material almost as quickly as they acquired it, probably at the same time they took down their decorations in the case of Christmas Annuals or while packing their trunks before returning home from their holidays in the case of Summer Numbers, while collectors, bibliophiles and librarians have tended to view such material as unworthy of their attention. Even Shilling Shockers, with their fragile paper wrappers and far from sturdy paper spines, were hardly designed to survive more than a single railway journey.
The net result of this is that anyone seeking to research the history of such marginal publications is going to struggle to access material. Indeed, finding a substantial run – never mind a complete run from its inception in 1860 through to its demise in 1898 – of the legendary Beeton’s Christmas Annual, in which Sherlock Holmes first made his appearance in 1887, would tax the combined strength of the entire British library system. The National Library of Scotland has a number of issues, for example, as does the British Library. But between them, nothing like a complete run – and very little from the publication’s final decade despite the promise of their catalogues. In fact, this is a problem with most Christmas Annuals. Very few such publications were under the same ownership from start to finish, and it is quite clear that a change of proprietor rarely, if ever, improved distribution, especially when such changes occurred in the latter stages of a particular title’s life cycle – and this directly impacts on conservation
But if accessing Beeton’s Annual poses considerable problems for researchers, there are a great number of lesser annuals – including those attached to such standard Victorian monthly periodicals as Belgravia, London Society, or Tinsley’s Magazine – that pose no less insurmountable obstacles.
It is for this reason that the John Johnson Collection, accessible through the Bodleian’s Weston Library, is such a useful resource. For although the Collection is, like those made by other collectors, a serendipitous enterprise, it contains not only a great deal of material not available elsewhere, some of which allows us to patch the gaps in other collections, but that material comes complete with the fragile paper wrappers in which such items were originally issued. This business of wrappers is more important than one might imagine since the covers often contain information about price, publisher, year of publication, and even the name of the editor which is not repeated elsewhere. The vast majority of annuals that have survived have been bound together higgledy-piggledy without wrappers which makes even the question of assigning a date to them something of a laborious process.
More significantly, however, the John Johnson Collection has particular strengths of its own: firstly, in the field of annuals aimed at children; secondly, in the not unrelated area of annuals produced by evangelical groups; and, thirdly, with regard to the emergent sensation novel.
Thus, Annuals Box 10 (of the thirteen box-files in which the annuals are stored) contains a useful set of the lavish Christmas Numbers (1869, 1870. 1879 to 1886) offered by TheQuiver, a periodical perhaps attempting to soften its strongly evangelical stance following the death of its proprietor, John Cassell, in 1865. One of the high points of examining this set of material was the discovery of a little known story by the writer Bernard Heldman dealing with fraud (‘To Be Left Till Called For’, The Golden Mark, Christmas Number of The Quiver, 1880). Since Heldman himself was later convicted of fraud and subsequently changed his name to Richard Marsh when he started writing sensation fiction, this item is something of a curiosity.
Elsewhere we find the 1877 Christmas Number of Good Words with contributions from Anthony Trollope and Margaret Oliphant (Box 5); the The Fireside Christmas Number for 1895 (again Box 5); and Paths of Peace, 1897, the Christmas Number of the Sunday Magazine (Box 11).
Another interesting body of material aimed at the children’s market, though this time of an entirely secular nature, is to be found in Box 1, which contains four Summer Numbers of Ally Sloper’s Annual (1881-1884), together with a twelve-year run of Ally Sloper’s Comic Kalendar (1876-1887). The hand behind all this material is Charles Henry Ross (1835-1923). In August, 1867 Ross published a full-page picture strip in the humorous magazine Judy, of which he was then editor. This picture strip, entitled ‘Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount’, introduced the character Ally Sloper – thereby creating what is now generally considered the first British comic strip. Judy was taken over by the artist Gilbert Dalziel in 1872, though Ross’s wife, Marie Duval, who had stronger graphic skills than her husband, continued to draw the Ally Sloper strips until 1879. Finally, in 1883, Ross sold his rights in Ally Sloper to Dalziel. The material gathered in the John Johnson Collection, therefore, casts considerable light on this early transitional phase in the development of the comic strip.
Ross’s work both as a writer and as a graphic artist extended far beyond Judy. During the same period, he was also supplying both Beeton’s Christmas Annual and Routledge’s Christmas Annual with comic strips as well as various skits and stories. Ross is also a significant, though largely overlooked, figure in the development of sensation fiction. It now seems likely, for example, that he was the principal author of the pseudonymous Penny Dreadful Ruth the Betrayer; or, the Female Spy (1862-63), a work which is now considered to have been the first to introduce the figure of the female detective to popular literature.
Ross was not above mocking the conventions of sensation fiction, however, and in 1872 he published a sophisticated parody of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon entitled Hot and Cold; A Life and Death Search which constituted the entirety of Routledge’s Christmas Annual for that year. The John Johnson Collection does not include a copy of Hot and Cold, but it does contain two issues of a Christmas Annual entitled The Round Table (numbers for 1880 and 1890; Box 11), both containing criminous matter, of which Ross was editor. This criminous theme is picked up in other annuals, such as John Camden Hotten’s The Piccadilly Annual (1871), a work largely dedicated to Hunted Down and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Box 9); The Englishman’s Christmas Annual (1877), a bizarre publication created by Dr Edward Kenealy, the barrister who had defended the notorious Tichborne Claimant and who was still trying to drum up public support for his client more than two years after he had been sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment for perjury (Box 4); and an extremely scarce copy of Remington’s Annual for Christmas 1889 (Box 10). (Remington & Co. was one of the more elusive publishers who clustered around Henrietta Street in the 1880s.)
Paradoxically, though shilling monthlies such as Belgravia and London Society were at the forefront of publishing sensation fiction in instalments, their various Christmas and Summer Annuals, though by no means devoid of interest, are relatively tame affairs.
London Society was launched by the publisher James Hogg in 1862. From the outset, it published a Christmas Annual and, starting around 1868, a Summer Number as well. However, while tracking the evolution of the Christmas Annual has been made slightly easier by the fact that, at least as far as the early years are concerned, copies are occasionally to be found in bound collections of the periodical itself, this is not the case with regard to the Summer Numbers which are very scarce.
On this basis, the five copies of the London Society Summer Numbers (for 1868, 1869, 1871, 1875, and 1886) in the John Johnson Collection (Box 7) are of particular interest, not least since they all retain their bright paper wrappers. Indeed, while the noted bibliographers Sadleir and Wolff both list their holdings of the Summer Numbers, the earliest issues they record are for 1872 (Sadleir) and 1874 (Wolff) – the John Johnson Collection, therefore, indicates a slightly earlier launch date and raises the possibility of an even earlier one.
Interestingly enough, the contents of these early Summer Numbers themselves – and we can include here Mary Braddon’s The Summer Tourist of 1871 (Box 11) – provide a fascinating glimpse of how the Victorian Miss came to terms with the new phenomenon of the middle-class family holiday. Thus, the various articles, stories, and poems, not to mention illustrations, deal with such issues as the merits of one destination over another, both at home and abroad, how to select a hotel, the advantages and disadvantages of travelling companions, picnicking, and even the etiquette and management of seaside romances.
Needless to say, other researchers will undoubtedly find other pathways through the John Johnson Collection and other points of interest along the way. There can be no doubt, however, that the Collection itself comprises a major repository of such material, a repository, moreover, that has not only been professionally catalogued but is easily accessible thanks to the helpful ministrations of the library staff though for those unfamiliar with the Bodleian it is certainly worth sending an email a few days in advance of a personal visit.
Through John Sayers, we have just received a donation of a ledger containing a wealth of advertising material for Mantle’s Flour – a rare survival. John has kindly sent us this post contextualising the volume.
An archive of Ashby-de-la-Zouch material brought back to England from Canada is one of the most recent additions to the Johnson Collection. A thick ledger, with Mantle’s Flour ephemera tucked and in some cases pasted into it, is a slice of a late Victorian business, with two photographs and numerous business documents and advertisements.
The archive was donated by a Canadian who acquired it in Canada.
Reportedly, it was brought to Canada about 1900 by the son of the owner of the British business, who emigrated to London, Ontario and set up a business there. A single artifact in the collection is from that Ontario business, and suggests that its products included flour, but went beyond it. We have no information as to what became of the Canadian business.
Apparently, the British company, Mantle’s Flours, advertised extensively, and striking posters attest to this. An 1897 16-page program for a Fête carries a profile of many of the businesses in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the form of advertisements. Size of the advertisements varied considerably by business, and the largest advertisement of all – a full page – was by Mantle’s Flour.
Late Victorian design styles and techniques are illustrated throughout the material. Not only typography but also colour played a significant part in making some of the material very eye-catching. The illustration, a poster with one corner tipped in to the ledger page, provides a fine example of the impact of graphics and colour.
For the student of business in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, or for that matter Victorian local businesses generally, the advertisements cover much of the spectrum of late Victorian product and retail enterprise. The Program for the Fête also describes late Victorian entertainments that were provided to attendees throughout the day of the Fête. By today’s standards some of them were ‘politically incorrect’.
There are no accounting records or financial statements in the archive. What we see is essentially what the public saw. From this writer’s experience, this is relatively unusual. Financial records lend themselves to being saved because they are already in chronological order. The Mantle’s Flour records are not in any specific order and can be dated only as far as to the decade.
However, they are focused in one ledger and are in fine condition. What a wonderful business and social ‘find’!
Valentine cards of the nineteenth century very often incorporated flowers, either as the main image, decoration or both. The choice of flower was by no means accidental: each bloom had a meaning, understood (but how well?) by both sender and recipient. Although red roses are the universal symbol of love even now, pansies are still associated with thoughts and lilies with purity, the meaning associated with most other flowers has been lost over time.
Decoding the language of flowers is not easy. Apart from inevitable variants according to the sources used, a fairly thorough botanical knowledge is called for. Kate Greenaway (in 1884) has 33 entries for rose, all with different meanings: The language of flowers, 
A yellow tulip signified hopeless love or cheerful thoughts, but a red one a declaration of love, while variegated tulips conveyed beautiful eyes.
Then, there are the mixed bouquets! Combinations of flowers pose particular problems to the 21st century viewer.
Since most valentines were composed of different elements, the intention could be clarified by the scrap bearing the text, itself sometimes incorporating a flower.
This year’s joint project with the National Valentine Association (USA) has led us to digitise scores of valentines from the John Johnson Collection, which can be seen online for the first time and to share via Pinterest images from other collections, institutional and private, British and American: https://uk.pinterest.com/johnjohnsoncoll/
We have also included Mullord Bros’ card game: The language of flowers, which gives a guide to flowers’ meanings in the late 19th century, taken from ‘the best authorities’.
If you can add to our knowledge of the power of the flower to impart meaning, or if you would like to share valentines from your own collection with us on our Pinterest site, please email email@example.com
Like to know more?
Hundreds of dictionaries of ‘floriography’ were published in Victorian Britain. Some 19th century British and American sources easily consulted online include: