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.