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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Valentine's Day in Regency England

Do you think sending valentines on February 14 is a modern concept? Valentine’s Day was actually big business in Georgian England. Preprinted cards didn’t exist, but would-be sweethearts and lovers exchanged handmade valentines through the mail.

c 1802 handmade valentine

There were customs and lore from centuries before the regency era about Valentine’s Day. Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls portrays birds choosing their mates on that day. Shakespeare’s heartbroken Ophelia mourns Valentine’s Day. In the fifteenth century, Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote a valentine to his wife from the Tower of London when he was captured after the Battle of Agincourt. By the 1600s, giving gifts or tokens to ladies seems to have become a common practice.

In 1725, Antiquities of the Common People describes community practices regarding a variety of beliefs and observances. It has a judgmental tone, as you can see in this section mentioning drawing lots to determine your valentine:

It is a Ceremony never omitted among the Vulgar to draw Lots which they Term Valentines on the Eve before Valentine’s day. The Names of a select Number of one Sex are by an equal Number of the other put into some Vessel and after that every one draws a Name which for the present is called their Valentine and is also look’d upon as a good Omen of their being Man and Wife afterwards.

Drawing names for valentines is vulgar? They’re no fun. The practice of drawing lots gives us an explanation for the nursery rhyme that perseveres:

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,

the honey’s sweet and so are you

thou art my love and I am thine

I drew thee to my valentine

the lot was cast and then I drew

and fortune said it should be you.

Early valentine, or lover's gift, ca. 1750–1800. Vellum, hand painted. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

To bring things to the Georgian era, lovers, friends, and sweethearts sent one another valentines. In February 1805, The Ipswich Journal said, “On Valentine’s Day, the General Two-penny Post Office received 80,000 letters—an increase from last year of 20,000. The amount of 80,000 letters is 686£ 13s 4d.”

Preprinted cards didn’t come into existence until the middle of the nineteenth century, but even 200 years ago, Valentine’s Day was big business.

Some made valentines with gilt-edged paper or paper trimmed with real lace, and they could be embossed or have metal sequins sewn in. Others used plain paper, but either way the valentines were decorated. Sometimes the sheets had images on them that the sender colored. For those who were more talented, flowers were the most common decoration, but they also drew hearts, birds, and cupids.

But the decorations were only one part of your valentine. What about the romantic words? That was up to the sender. This was an era where skill with wit and word games was valued, but for those who needed a little inspiration, there was help available.

In 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published. It was a booklet that listed romantic verses. For a sixpence, a young woman seeking inspiration could purchase Every Lady’s Own Valentine Writer In Prose and Verse in 1798. It contained “Humorous Dialogue: Witty Valentines, with Answers; Pleasant Sonnets, on Love, Courtship, Marriage, Beauty, &c”. Similar booklets were published throughout the nineteenth century.

Valentine, by William Spencer (1790-1866), sent to Harriet Holmes, his future wife, (1811-14). The V&A

Here’s one poem from Cupid’s annual charter, published in 1805:

My name in this I shan’t express

But leave you fair one it to guess

Cannot you see when you are by

The fire sparkle in my eye

Will not my very look declare

The preference I give my fair

Reward these tokens with a smile

And shew you know me and beguile

The doubts to which I do incline

And take me for a Valentine

These booklets could be broken down by category, like valentines to a faithless lover or to a man poorer than you. Suggested positive and negative replies were given. It was a popular custom for all classes and genders to send romantic valentines, but sometimes friends sent fond valentines to one another.

Jane Austen even hints at sending tokens on Valentine’s Day. In Emma, Jane Fairfax’s inappropriate gift arrives on February 14. Frank Churchill says, “The arrival of this pianoforte is decisive with me. I wanted to know a little more, and this tells me quite enough... now I can see it in no other light than as an offering of love.” Of course, he’s hinting that it’s from someone other than him, but it’s still a Valentine’s Day present.

What do you think of these regency era valentines? Did it surprise you to know that Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet could have exchanged handmade cards on February 14?

If you’re looking for more Valentine’s Day romance, read Mr. Darcy’s Valentine, the first release in my Love in London with Mr. Darcy series.

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