Victorian Valentine’s Day


A handmade Valentines card made by Esther Howland, considered the Mother of the American Valentines Card, ca. 1870s. Photo credit: Wikipedia

People often associate Valentine’s Day with having a secret admirer and receiving an anonymous Valentine’s card, or maybe giving a gift to a loved one, or even an opportunity to propose marriage to their intended.

These traditions are all firmly rooted in the Victorian era’s celebration of Valentine’s Day. Gift-giving was very popular among the devoted, as was proposing, but perhaps the most significant tradition was the Valentine’s Day card. Writing cards to loved ones for Valentine’s Day began in the 1700s, but they were hand-written, plain pieces of paper, generally speaking. The Valentine’s Day card as we know it today only came about in the 1800s.

In 1840, as a part of the reformation of the postal service in Great Britain, the Uniform Penny Post was introduced, which meant that Valentine’s Day cards could be sent from anywhere to anywhere within the country and only cost 1 penny. With postage no longer extortionate for the lower classes, the sending of Valentine’s Day cards en masse began, and with it, the mass production of Valentine’s Day cards. Within a year of the Uniform Penny Post being introduced, 400,000 Valentines were posted across the country. Many Victorians didn’t buy their Valentines cards, instead choosing to make them with resources from local stationery and haberdashery shops. Handmade Victorian Valentine’s Day cards were very intricate, often featuring lace, crushed flowers, and beautiful pictures of hearts, cupids, and couples in love.

Heart Jewelry

It wasn’t just cards that Victorians sent through the post to their beloved for Valentine’s Day – many of the cards had secret compartments featuring gifts like jewelry, or watches. Some of this jewelry might be what you expect, as hearts had become a symbol of love and romance, and so jewelry featuring hearts was very common.

This gorgeous Victorian brooch sells for a little over $3200.

This stunning Victorian brooch shown above is made with labradorite, seed pearls, and diamonds, and dates to the 1890s. A heart-shaped brooch like this would have been a very common Valentine’s Day gift for young Victorian ladies.

This beautiful Victorian locket sells for a little over $9,000.

Another likely Valentines gift is this beautiful locket shown above, made with diamonds and synthetic rubies, also shaped like a heart. This locket – dating to the 1880s – is precisely the type of gift that could have been hidden away in a secret compartment of a Victorian Valentine’s Day card, just waiting for the receiver to open the card and be delighted by their loved one’s gift.

The earliest example of the heart shape representing love and romance existed in Britain in the 13th century. With the rise of industry and mass production in the Victorian era, hearts were on everything from cards, jewelry, candy boxes, and even Valentines-related images like this one below, a heart-shaped “Map of Woman’s Heart,” dating to the 1830s.

“Map of a Woman’s Heart” dating back to the 1830’s. Photo credit: Wikipedia

While this image has its controversial moments to the modern reader [I for one am certainly not sure how I feel about having “The Sea of Wealth” or the “Land of Selfishness” within my heart], it demonstrates the prevalence of the heart symbol within Victorian society, as well as its significance as a symbol of romantic love.

Snakes to Represent Love

Things do differ slightly in the ways that Victorians represented love from the way that love is often presented in present-day society. A very common image of love and commitment in the Victorian era, for example, was snakes. An animal which is now more closely associated with cunning and malice, snakes’ winding bodies were seen as a symbol of eternity, an eternal devotion to one’s beloved. Snake-themed jewelry was also overwhelmingly popular during the Victorian period, and even Queen Victoria’s engagement ring was a snake, its body wound around to make a band, with an emerald on its head, and rubies for eyes.

This magnificent heart and snake brooch sells for $13,000.

This stunning example of Victorian snake jewelry above dates to the 1880s, and exquisitely combines the motif of snakes, this example featuring two – representing two beings intertwined in love for all eternity – and the heart in the centre, displaying a stunning 1.35ct feature diamond. This brooch epitomizes romantic Victorian jewelry.

Gifting to the Gents

It wasn’t just the ladies who were treated to shining presents on Valentine’s Day; gentlemen received gifts from their loved ones also. Again, jewelry was a common theme, possibly because it was easier and much cheaper to send in the post than many other potential gifts. Diamonds and other glittering gemstones were less common for the men, but did still occur. Love hearts were not seen on gent’s jewelry at the time, as they were considered a uniquely feminine image. Snakes, however, persisted as a theme of love for men and women both.

A gentleman’s snake ring sells for $2000.

This gentlemen’s snake ring above is a perfect example of the romantic jewelry for men during the Victorian period. Dating to the turn of the century, this 1900s ring could be an indicator of the beginnings of more men wearing jewelry quite commonly, as more examples of rings in this style can be found in the first half of the 20th century, after the Victorian period.

Signet rings have always been a popular gift for men, as they are a uniquely masculine item of jewelry, and they have a versatility that makes them wearable for most occasions.

This 1890’s signet ring lists for $2600.

This 1890s signet ring above is made with hardstone, a fabulous material that creates a gorgeous effect reminiscent of the embers of a fire. Carving into hardstone was common practice, as the stone is malleable enough to be easily carved, yet still tough enough to sustain everyday wear. Crests were also a very popular thing to have engraved onto signet rings, making this piece exemplary in its features.

For the More Luxurious Victorian Gift-Giver

While jewelry was a very popular choice for a Valentine’s gift, it wasn’t always jewelry that was chosen. For the more luxurious lovers of the Victorian age, fine silverware was an excellent gift to give to leave an impression.

This impressive etched glass and sterling silver gilt claret jug lists for over $13,000.

This claret jug shown above is an example of the type of gift that would be given in the Victorian period for Valentine’s Day. Its decadence and ornate styling creates a symbol of romantic love, as well as a dedication to someone. It could also be seen as a gift that could be given along with a proposal, promising a bright and equally decadent future with one another.

This magnificent pair of antique Victorian English sterling silver tazzas/centerpieces lists for almost $17,000.

These centerpieces shown above are another example of a lavish Valentines gift. Dating to 1860, this pair of centerpieces has the type of ornamentation that oozes romance, and they would have certainly made a stunning gift to any loved one. The putto figures holding up the main basket of the centerpieces would be easy to mistake for cupids, and perhaps this is the intention of the pieces themselves.

This Victorian English sterling silver inkwell lists for $3200.

More personal gifts were also an excellent choice. For example, if one’s intended is an avid writer, perhaps a beautiful writing set would be what they appreciate the most. This water lily themed inkwell and quill shown above dates to 1890, and its incredible attention to details are hard to ignore. This set would have been a perfect gift to spark the writing of love letters, pushing romance further and further.

A lot has changed since the end of the Victorian era, mostly for the better [thinking about the more questionable areas of the map to Woman’s Heart]. It remains unchanged, however, that we owe a lot to them. The vast majority of what we consider to be Valentine’s Day traditions started with the Victorians, and it is undeniable that they changed the holiday irrevocably. So, this Valentine’s Day, think like the Victorians, and do something special for your one true love.

Andrew Campbell, founder and owner of AC Silver, has been dealing in antique silver and antique jewelry since 1977. In addition to a premier retail premises in Newcastle, north-east England, Andrew has developed an internationally recognized online store, serving both new and return customers nationally and worldwide.

Andrew personally sources a wide range of items, including antique jewelry, antique diamond rings, and antique gemstone rings. Andrew has also developed a fine and comprehensive inventory of antique silverware, AC Silver is a respected and trusted specialist in its field.

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