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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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:
In The valentine and its origins, Frank Staff shows examples of a rebus and of an endless knot from from Witts Recreations selected from the finest fancies of modern muses (London, 1641). He also demonstrates clearly the link between the German tradition of Freundschaftkarten (literally friendship card) and Irrgarten (labyrinth) and the Pennsylvanian Fraktur, puzzle purses and love knots.
The rebuses we show on our Pinterest page date mainly from the 18th and early 19th centuries, with some later, simpler, examples. These valentine rebuses are part of a much wider tradition. In the John Johnson Collection there is a fascinating folder of Hieroglyphic letters from the same period on subjects (mostly) other than love. These are similar to the examples in the Mercurius Politicus blog.
We thought it would be fun for you to try some and will be posting these on Twitter too.
Both (C) Bodleian Library: John Johnson Collection: Valentines 6
Puzzle purses differ from other mechanical valentines in their elaborate folds. Not only did the recipient have to work out in what order the message should be read, but re-folding the puzzle purse was no easy matter! The folds were numbered and revealed poems and (carefully enclosed in the centre) often a lock of hair or a ring. Nancy Rosin, President of the National Valentine Collectors Association, has a wonderful article about the mechanics of these online in her Victorian Treasury.
(C) Nancy Rosin Collection
Symbolic of never ending love, Endless knots or True-love knots, on the other hand, can be read in any order. These sometimes took the form of cut-out work, or could be incorporated into the design of more elaborate valentines.
The new John Johnson Pinterest site aims to answer this question by finding examples of each element of valentine manufacture. We draw on valentines not only from the John Johnson and Harding collections at the Bodleian, but also from Nancy Rosin and the National Valentine Collectors Association (USA), with whom we are delighted to collaborate again this year, from the Museum of London (whose 1871 valentines are online) and from Michael Russo. This is only the beginning. We hope that collectors and institutions will draw our attention to other elements to be found in valentines and allow us to pin examples of these, so that we can build up these Pinterest folders into a scholarly resource for anyone interested in valentines. Please send contributions to email@example.com
The manufacture of elaborate valentines in the Victorian era fascinated Charles Dickens and continues to intrigue us today. These were true confections, made by hand: imaginative, but repetitive. While the printing and embossing was done by men, each of the female workers (referred to as ‘nymphs’ by Dickens) added a precise piece to the ensemble: a colour from a watercolour pot, a scrap, a paper or fabric flower, a tinsel ornament, a shell, a glass bead, gauze, lace, netting…. The results, protected in boxes, were luxurious love tokens, far from the cruelty of crude contemporary ‘comic’ valentines.
Dickens’ article published on Febrary 20 1864 as Cupid’s Manufactory (All the Year Round, volume XI, pp 36-40) is now online through the wonderful Dickens Journals Online project (University of Buckingham). Flamboyant in style, the article describes in meticulous detail the process of making valentines at the (unnamed) manufactory of Joseph Mansell and lists the componenents he saw being applied to the embossed lace paper which is the basis of most elaborate valentines.
This page from the Illustrated London News of February 14 1874 shows the whole process, very much as described by Dickens ten years earlier, but at the premises of George Meek and the workshop of Eugene Rimmel.
It is Valentine time again. In 2010 we mounted a small exhibition called The season for love in the Proscholium of the Bodleian Library. Last year, there was an international initiative on Twitter (#loveheritage) led by #AskArchivists to surface valentine collections, which resulted in our little online gallery of comic valentines.
Images: all images are from the John Johnson Collection (JJ) and are copyright Bodleian Library, University of Oxford (and, where indicated) ProQuest. Click to see the large images, but do not reproduce any images without permission.
Rimmel in the John Johnson Collection
While we have 20 boxes and several albums of valentines in the John Johnson Collection, there are very few Rimmel valentines. However, we hold a wealth of ephemera relating to the varied activities of the firm. Advertisements for perfumes, table fountains, disinfectors, soaps, Christmas novelties, Easter eggs, fans, etc, are outside the scope of this blog, but much of this material has been digitised as part of ProQuest’s The John Johnson Collection: an archive of printed ephemera (freely available in the UK through FE, HE, public libraries and schools, and by institutional subscription elsewhere). I will explore here valentine-related advertising and, more widely, Rimmel’s relationship with the Theatre, whose programmes he used extensively to advertise his valentines and other seasonal merchandise.
Eugène Rimmel (1820–1887) came to England from France and, with his father, established a perfumery business in London in 1834. From 1847 to 1857, he was in Gerrard St, Soho, with a branch in Paris at 19 boulevard de la Gare d’Ivry (now boulevard Vincent Auriol) in the 13th arrondissement. His claim to fame was as ‘sole proprietor of the toilet vinegar’ (an aromatic vinegar used as an emollient). He already enjoyed the Queen’s patronage.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Rimmel attracted much attention for his ‘Great Exhibition Bouquet’ and his Perfume Fountain, which was also used in the Exhibition of Art and Art-Industry in Dublin (1853) and the New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (1853–1854).
By 1861, Rimmel had premises at 96 Strand, 24 Cornhill and the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. In Paris, he was now in the more fashionable boulevard des Italiens (one of the grands boulevards) and there was another branch in Berlin. Rimmel’s royal patrons now included Queen Victoria, the King and Queen of Spain and the King of Portugal. He was ‘inventor and patentee of the perfume vaporizer, for balls, soirées, theatres, etc.’
Rimmel used perfume imaginatively, to scent sachet valentines and theatre and concert programmes, including the fine Japanese programmes of the Royal Aquarium (detail below), which were perfumed with E. Rimmel’s Royal Aquarium Bouquet .
At the Haymarket in 1889, Rimmel’s Perdita Bouquet, dedicated to the famous actress Mary Anderson, and other perfumes were sold at the bars.
The Rimmel publicity machine was impressive. We have programmes in the John Johnson Collection from The Adelphi, Avenue Theatre, Canterbury Theatre of Varieties, Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Queen’s Theatre, Royal Alhambra Palace, Royal Aquarium, Royal Globe and Royalty theatres that proclaim they are perfumed by Rimmel. Undoubtedly, there were others. It is likely that the programmes (for a far wider range of theatres) that carry his advertisements or which are embossed ‘Rimmel’ were also perfumed. Where there is no statement to that effect we cannot be sure, and the perfume itself has of course long since evaporated!
Rimmel’s perfumes were also integrated into his productions, such as Evanion’s An evening of illusions [c. 1871] and at the Theatre Royal, New Adelphi in February 1864 (left and below)
and at W.S. Woodin’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
For Antony & Cleopatra at Drury Lane, a ‘Persian ribbon’ was used to scent the scene
The advantage of theatre programmes and playbills was that they were printed frequently, sometimes daily. They were, therefore, ideal vehicles for seasonal advertising. In our holdings are programmes advertising valentines from 1869 to 1873, and for 1875 to 1880, 1885 and 1887.
This 1879 advertisement on the back page of a Drury Lane programme for The lost letter and Blue Beard shows that valentines were marketed for children. Rimmel used his countrymen Jules Chéret (more famous for his posters) and Faustin as designers of valentines.
Chéret ran a lithographic printing firm in the rue Brunel in Paris and many of Rimmel’s lithographed advertisements and almanacs carry his imprint.
Although the annual almanacs were beautifully chromolithographed. the advertising pages (which sometimes refer to valentines) were usually modest.
Advertising page from Rimmel’s comic almanac pocket-book, 1886. JJ Beauty Parlour 4 (13) (C) Bodleian Library & ProQuestIt was in his magazine inserts that Rimmel could indulge in more fanciful illustration, often again by Chéret. We have four-page valentine advertisements for 1868, 1869 and 1872-1874, variously printed by Chéret, Stephen Austin (Hertford) and Charles Terry (High Holborn).
The Rimmel empire continued to expand, with branches in Brighton, Florence, The Hague, Amsterdam, Brussels and Liège by 1874.
On 14 February 1874, The Illustrated London News showed and described the manufacture of valentines at the printing works of George Meek and the valentine workshop of Eugène Rimmel.
Just in time! In March 1875, a fire totally destroyed Beaufort House, the hub of the valentine side of the business. However, valentines continued to be produced, as evidenced by references to Rimmel’s ‘perfumed valentines, all novel and elegant, in great variety. Detailed list on application’ in a Rimmel advert on the back page of a Royal Princess’s Theatre programme for 28 June 1887, for example. However, references to Rimmel valentines are fewer and more modest. The otherwise rich online source for Rimmel research: 19th century UK periodicals (Gale, by subscription) has no results for advertising in magazines beyond 1877. However, as late as 1888, there are small advertisements for Rimmel valentines in newspapers, such as The Standard and The Morning Post which state that a detailed price list is available on application. Perhaps the fashion for valentines was declining, perhaps the firm slightly lost heart after the fire, or perhaps the perfume business was more lucrative. Or perhaps the public had come to associate Rimmel with valentines to such an extent that costly advertising was no longer necessary. The Standard for 12 February 1887 has a paragraph within its news pages: ‘The approach of St. Valentine’s-day is signalised, as usual, by the production of a number of graceful and ingenious valentines by Rimmel and Co., including expensive ones, and others which are at once tasteful and not too costly ‘. Whatever the case, the lace paper, tinsel, gauze, artificial flowers, feathers, scraps, etc. of Rimmel’s elaborate valentines gave pleasure to very many people in the 19th century and continue to do so to those who see them today.