Victorian-era valentines sparked conflict, not kisses


A particular assortment of Victorian-era valentines dating back to the 1840s could not be more different from today’s sentimental Hallmark cards. Instead of romance, these “comic valentines” inspired brawls.

As a part of “Love your Library Week,” the BYU library will host a tunnel of “library love” on Thursday, Feb. 14, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the second floor featuring both romantic and sarcastic Victorian valentines blown up to poster size.

Valentine’s Day in Victorian England was popularly celebrated through the exchange of cheap valentines. Typically purchased by young adults, these valentines included a verse and a hand-painted picture.

However, according to Maggie Kopp, curator of rare books for Special Collections, the genre of comic valentines — far from bearing romantic expressions of devotion — is quite shocking by modern standards. 

Comic valentines were popular in the early Victorian period and were frequently sent anonymously to tease or insult. (Courtesy Roger Layton)

These cards delivered personalized blows, directing the rhyming vitriol to the Achilles’ heel of the recipient.

“The recipient could be teased or insulted for their age, appearance, trade, hobbies, and other traits,” Kopp said. “Old maids were particular targets.”

While some may have laughed at the snarky mail, others pursued retribution.

“I read of at least a couple of instances where irate fathers wrote to the post office requesting their money back after their daughters were sent rude valentines,” Kopp said. “This was before 1840, when the recipient would pay for postage.”

Comic valentines prevailed in the United States toward the end of the 19th century and caused just as much drama as their English counterparts.

“An article in Godey’s Lady’s Book in the mid-1870s talks about how people would get offended by these sorts of valentines and get into huge arguments over who sent them, but the writer thought that people should lighten up and learn how to take a joke,” Kopp said.

The nasty prose provides only half of the valentines’ punch; the accompanying illustrations are in turn sullen and sinister. Library communications manager Roger Layton has been overseeing the valentines’ transition from card to poster size so students can fully enjoy both aspects of the collection.

“A lot of these materials are in special collections, so we don’t want people handling them a lot because the valentines would wear out,” Layton said. “We put them in public display so everyone can see them.”

BYU junior Clarissa Gregory said her reaction to a comic valentine would depend on the sender.

“I would be surprised to get a valentine in the mail first and foremost,” Gregory said. “But it would depend on who it was from. If it was from a friend, I would get back at them in a jesting way. If someone was seriously trying to insult you, I don’t know if there would be a good way to retaliate.”  

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