A Short History of Victorian Valentines: Symbolism in the Victorian Era

The Victorians placed great emphasis on flowers to convey emotion. In fact whole books devoted to the language of flowers helped young ladies decipher the meaning of a lover’s bouquet. Thus the flowers on a Valentine card played an important role in expressing the sender’s true feelings.

Valentine Cards

Before 1846, Valentines were handmade affairs, and although popular, were not widely exchanged. But after mass production made fancy papers available, the elaborate lace cards with ribbons, flowers, and romantic sentiments took Victorian society by storm.

The Valentine reached its height of popularity in the late 1800s and young lovers on both sides of the Atlantic found this February holiday more exciting than Christmas. Some of the most fashionable illustrations and designs for moving cards came from the artist Kate Greenaway.

The cards were sent anonymously to protect the reputation of sender and recipient. In some cases this could lead to embarrassing misunderstandings. In the 2007 television drama Cranford, modeled after Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name, Miss Caroline Tomkinson believed the young doctor had proposed to her after receiving an anonymous Valentine with a reference to medicine!

Popular Sentiments

Here are some examples of the greetings one might read in a Victorian Valentine:

  • In love I hope to conquer.
  • Accept this as a tribute of my undying affection.
  • Forget Thee! Never. E’en time will never from my heart thy much-loved image blot, though every other dream depart, thou wilt not be forgot.
  • My heart is yours.
  • Let’s strike a match!

Symbolism of Flowers in Victorian Literature

The imagery of the card was as important as the sentiments. Since the Victorians gave so much significance to flowers, the posies on a Valentine might speak louder than a thousand words. Roses signified true love. Daisies showed innocence, pansies consideration or heart’s ease. Ivy denoted fidelity and hydrangea heartlessness.

The following quotes show the frequency of flowers as symbols in Victorian society:

  • “[He] offered Rose a quaint little nosegay of pansies. “Heart’s-ease, do you think I need it?” she asked, looking up with sudden sobriety.” ~Rose in Bloom, L.M. Alcott (1876).
  • “He found Mary in the garden gathering roses and sprinkling the petals on a sheet.” Since the conversation is about to involve a discussion of Mary’s love, setting her among the roses was highly symbolic on Eliot’s part. ~Middlemarch, George Eliot (1874).
  • “”I would far rather have two or three lilies of the valley gathered for me by a person I like, than the most expensive bouquet that could be bought!'” ~Wives & Daughters, E. Gaskell (1866).
  • “Flora, whom he had left a lily, had become a peony”¦” ~Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens (1857). Lilies typified virginity and maiden charms while the peony bore, among other meanings, shame.

Reviving Victorian Customs

The custom of sending Valentines waned at the end of the 19th century. It did not revive until post-WWII. Even now a Valentine’s Day card is often associated with cheap, garish-hued notes that elementary-school kids exchange rather than with an expression of true love. But given the recurring interest in the Victorian era, perhaps the elaborate lace and floral love notes will make a comeback.

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