Love it, or hate it, this Sunday is Valentine’s Day, where many will exchange cards, gifts and flowers with their loved ones.
The custom of sending Valentines is hundreds of years old, but the tradition truly thrived during the end of the eighteenth century and nineteenth century. The improvement in postal services and printing methods during this period, made it easier than ever to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
The Evening Express in 1885 stated that when the trade was its best, between 1860 and 1880, the public spent a quarter of a million pounds annually upon valentines. It reports that at least 5,000 people, mostly girls and women, were employed in valentine factories, at wages ranging 10s to 18s per week.
Here at St Fagans we have a rather large collection of Valentine Cards dating from this period. Many are elaborate, adorned with cupids, satin ribbon, delicate lace or miniature flowers.
But surprisingly some are of complete contrast to these romantic and sentimental Valentine cards. Several from the collection, feature an ugly comic caricature, with humorous yet rather abusive verses beneath, clearly intended to cause offence. These cards were referred to as 'Comic Valentines', and their history has largely been forgotten.
The card in the middle right, from our collection at St Fagans National History Museum, is a perfect example of a typical comic valentine card. It shows a rather ugly, dramatic caricature of a woman crying with the following verse beneath:
Tired of your lonely state,
Longing for another male,
But this fact pray understand,
Men don’t like Women second hand.
These particular kind of cards become incredibly popular during the mid-nineteenth century.
The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian reported on the 14th February, 1846:
St. Valentine’s Day is now almost everywhere a degenerated festival, the only observance of any note consisting in the sending of anonymous letters, by way of practical joke, and this confined very much to the humbler classes….Each generally consisting of a single sheet of paper, on the first page of which is seen some ridiculous coloured caricature of the male or female figure, with a few burlesque verses below.
The anonymity aspect of sending a Valentine’s card would have made these racy cards appealing. They were also affordable to buy and to send, as they were printed on a single sheet of paper, unlike the more elaborate romantic cards.
Despite their huge popularity, the demand was short lived, and by the late 1800s, Wales and Britain's love of comic Valentines was over. The late Victorians viewed the cards as malicious and vulgar and demand for a return of moral values, politeness and decency.
Valentines, whether sentimental or comic, have come to be voted common place – not to say 'vulgar'. The Aberystwyth Observer, 21 February, 1885.