Dashers and dandies: elegance or vanity. Victorian valentines and the the artifice of dress

John Johnson Collection: Valentines 7 (16)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 7 (16)

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.

John Johnson Collection: Valentines 7 (17)

 

John Johnson Collection: Valentines 7 (19)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Dressing for the ball. Satirical print: John Johnson Collection: Valentines 7 (19)
John Johnson Collection: Fashion 19 (24)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 3 (86)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 3 (86)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 1 (71)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 1 (71) The ‘pork pie hat’ becomes you well / For seldom now we see a belle / Of such extensive girth, / You may account yourself a prize. / For all must class you from your size / With fat things of the earth.

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.

John Johnson Collection: Valentines 3 (70)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 3 (70) To balls and parties thus you go / With crinoline to catch a beau, / I’m not caught in such a trap / Not wishing to become a flat

 

 

John Johnson Collection: Valentines 2 (6)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 2 (6) So absurdly do you dress, / No words can my disgust express, / As wife I would never call mine / A thing made up of Crinoline, / With hoops & pads why you appear / Six times the size you really are,/ Were your crinoline transparent / Then the deceit would be apparent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.’

 

John Johnson Collection: Valentines 5 (11b)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 5 (11b)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But men did not escape. The most obvious targets were dandies, fops and swells, or lady-killers!

 

John Johnson Collection: Valentines 2 (27)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 2 (27)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Johnson Collection: Valentines 1 (60a)
John Johnson Collection: Valentines 1 (60a)

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.

 

Woven silk postcards (Stevengraphs): guest post by John G. Sayers

We are very grateful to John for another blog post contextualising the ocean liner ephemera which he is donating to the John Johnson Collection.

In the very early 1900s postcards were an inexpensive form of communication, travelling at a postal rate costing less than letters. However, if you wanted to display a special level of love and friendship you could pay the money to purchase a woven silk postcard.

Stevengraph from the John Johnson Collection: Bookmarkers 4

Woven silk images were reportedly first introduced in the 1860s using Jacquard looms which had become redundant in the face of imported competition in ribbon manufacturing. Thomas Stevens was the innovator and he was able to adapt the looms to create pictures in silk. Bookmarks, greeting cards, and eventually postcards were among the upmarket products coming out of the mills in Coventry. Because of the leadership of Thomas Stevens, they became known as Stevengraphs.

The Sayers Collection illustrates two different styles of Stevengraph ship postcards. One is a colour image of the ship with the name of the ship and sometimes other information printed below the image. The other style is a ‘Hands Across the Sea’ card with national flag images depicting the countries normally served by the named ship. For example, the Lusitania card depicts British and American flags; the Empress of Ireland card pictures the British and Canadian flags.

Because all these cards were relatively expensive to the sender they are uncommon and relatively expensive to the collector. Frequently they were sent in an envelope since they are relatively fragile, so postally used versions are relatively rare.

Values depend upon the ship, the condition of the card, and the shipping line. As would be expected, White Star Line cards, particularly RMS Olympic, sister ship to Titanic, have an enthusiastic following. Ships in disasters are expensive because some people collect cards related to disasters. In this collection, RMS Lusitania and RMS Empress of Ireland fit solidly into that bracket.

What do these cards tell us? First, that the British textile industry in the later 1800s was creative and adaptive. Second, that postcard manufacturers were always searching for new types of product and found one in specialized shipping images purchased in bulk and then mounted into postcards.  Third, that buyers will pay more for what is perceived as a quality product.

These charming postcards are contained in The Sayers Collection in the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library. A vast quantity of other ocean liner ephemera capturing social, shipping, historical, and commercial information in The Sayers Collection, continues to migrate across the Atlantic to the John Johnson Collection.