Will you be my Valentine?

Explore the practice of sending Valentines from handwritten letters to telegrams

By The Postal Museum

Explore the practice of sending Valentines from handwritten letters to telegrams

Valentine Telegram (1961)The Postal Museum

Sending love through the post

Valentine's Day has been celebrated for centuries. Here we reveal some of the beautifully designed cards sent between loved ones as well as the less romantic and sometimes offensive Victorian 'Vinegar Valentines'. 

Handmade Valentine Card (1790)The Postal Museum

Early Valentines

By the 1760s the tradition of sending gifts began to be replaced by prettily written and sometimes ornate letters like this example from 1790.

Puzzle Purse Valentine Card (1790)The Postal Museum

The oldest Valentine we have dates from about 1790 and is known as 'puzzle purse' - similar to paper fortune tellers today. The puzzle is to unfold it in the right way to reveal the hidden verses.

On the outside it reads...

My Dear the heart which you behold...

Puzzle Purse Valentine Card (1790)The Postal Museum

Will break when you the same unfold...

Puzzle Purse Valentine (1790)The Postal Museum

Even so my heart with love sick pain...

Puzzle Purse Valentine Card (1790)The Postal Museum

Sure wounded is and breaks in twain

Puzzle Purse Valentine (Unfolded) (1790)The Postal Museum

Here is the same puzzle purse unfolded.

'Hasten/ the/ happy day' Engagement CardThe Postal Museum

It's all in the details

Ever since Valentines first became popular in 18th century, people have channelled their energies into producing the most creative and elaborate cards possible as an expression of their love. Cards were made in all shapes and sizes using a range of materials and designs, some even had mechanical components that reveal a hidden message.

'Forget thee, never' Valentine Card (1870)The Postal Museum

Favourite themes included flowers, birds and angels and many included popup scenes or mechanical components which reveal a hidden message or picture. Here are some more examples of elaborate cards.

Birdcage Valentine (1817)The Postal Museum

A piece of string at the centre of the card lifts to reveal two little mice inside the bird cage!

Paper and Lace Valentine Card, 1850, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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'My heart is with you' Valentine Card, 1880, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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Valentine with fringe, 1890, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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Vinegar Valentine Print (1790)The Postal Museum

Vinegar Valentines

Not all Valentines were declarations of love. On Valentine's Day some people with a particular grudge could send rude or grotesque Valentines. Before 1840 people
had to pay to receive mail rather than send it, which really added insult to
injury! These are collectively known as 'Vinegar Valentines' because of their acidic nature.

In this example, the man, resembling a frog with large lips, goes in to kiss an unattractive woman. Next to her is a blind Cupid shooting an arrow at her.

The verse at the bottom reads...

Madam I've found a Beau for you.
So perfect match'd, I'm sure he'ill do
For he like you does take delight
To make his form a very fright.

Spiteful Valentine (1814)The Postal Museum

Adding insult to injury

Millions of Vinegar Valentines insulting a person's looks, intelligence, occupation and even relationship, were sent in the 18th and 19th centuries. While postage was not usually refunded, it was reduced to the single letter rate for Valentines sent in an envelope. Here are even more examples of these spiteful Valentines.                                                      

Comic Valentine Card, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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Humorous Transformation Valentine Cards, 1840/1870, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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Each unattractive lady depicted on the front opens to reveal that she is actually an animal!

Spiteful Valentine (1814)The Postal Museum

In another example sent to Thomas William Esq in 1814, a watercolour caricature reads:

O charms like thine are too divine...

Thou model of all grace!
For thee I sigh, I faint, I die,
To view thy love-formed face;
Thy crescent back, like neddy jack,
Hampers so fit to carry,
That if all men, were like thee - then,
I'd sooner die than marry'.

Vinegar Valentine (1910/1945)The Postal Museum

No Valentines for Postmen

From angry receivers of Vinegar Valentines to complete doubt in delivery, Postmen have not always been seen as potential Valentines themselves.

Like in this example showing a careless postman out on his Valentine's Day delivery.

Dropping letters with a cigarette in his mouth

And with even more falling out of his mailbag.

Sadly the verse confirms that this particular postman will not find love out on his delivery.

'Saint Valentine's Day. The Post Mistress' (1816)The Postal Museum

In this example women at a post office are snooping through Valentines while sorting the mail.

St Valentine's Day Send a Greetings Telegram (1952) by Norman JaquesThe Postal Museum

Telegrams: the first electronic Valentines

Have you ever sent an online Valentine greeting? How about a simple text on the day to a loved one? As technology changed so did the ways Valentines were sent. In the mid 1860s the General Post Office (GPO) pushed the boundaries on quickening communication, with the introduction of telegrams.

'Love's Telegraph' Valentine Card (1860/1869) by Dobbs, Kidd & Co.The Postal Museum

Not only was the telegraph system a feat in communications, but telegrams were very popular with the general public.

Cards themed around the telegraph system, like 'Love's Telegraph,' were produced and sent to loved ones. We have several examples of Valentine's Day themed telegrams sent from 1935.

St Valentine's day greetings telegram artwork, 1935, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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Valentine Telegram, Shirley Thompson, 1958-02-14, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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GPO Greetings Telegram and Envelope, Ron Atkinson, 1968-02-14, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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Harlequin Pop-up Valentine CardThe Postal Museum

Valentines Today

Advances in the way we communicate meant that the telegram was left behind in favour of modern forms of communications, despite this 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are still sent each year. Today some Valentines are reminiscent of the ornate declarations of love sent during Victorian times like this one on the right. 

World's No. 1 Lover (1996-02)The Postal Museum

Others contain the more comical elements first seen in Vinegar Valentines two-hundred years ago, but are much kinder to recipients looks AND feelings, such as 'World's No. 1 Lover' and 'Lover of the year award'.

'Lover of the year award' Valentine Card (1996-02-14)The Postal Museum

Share Your Valentines

Do you have a favourite Valentine or one you want to share? We would love to see them! Share them on Twitter or Instagram to @thepostalmuseum.

Credits: Story

Exhibition content - Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer
Exhibition content - Emma Harper, Curator
Digital production - Rachel Kasbohm, Digital Media Manager

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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