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The University of Southampton

Broadlands Archives reveal the nature of love expressed on Valentine’s Day 200 years ago

Published: 14 February 2019
The University's Special Collection hosts some 350 historic Valentines made between 1820-50.

The celebration of romantic love on Valentine’s Day dates back hundreds of years with the earliest known paper-based Valentine greetings written by hand in early 15th century France.

The very first Valentine’s cards as we, perhaps, know them today were introduced in the 18th century when the occasion had evolved into something that resembled our modern-day celebration where people would express their love through flowers, chocolates and greeting cards.

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution during the first half of the 19th century came more modern ways of printing and the very first mass-produced cards in about 1800s.

An excellent collection of around 350 of these cards – dated 1820-1850 – now feature as part of the extensive Broadlands Archive hosted by the University of Southampton’s Special Collections, housed in the Hartley Library.

Whilst the origins of the cards – and for whom they were written – remain something of a mystery, they are very well-preserved and curated by Southampton’s archivists who know they were purchased in 1910 by Wilfred William Ashley, the first Baron Mount Temple, who resided at Broadlands in Romsey, Hampshire, during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

What is known is that the cards were printed with ‘template’ artwork, typically featuring flowers, young couples or cupids, and, on the more deluxe cards paper lace, but without any messaging – that was left to the person sending the Valentine who could hand-colour the cards themselves, adding whatever further detail they wished including, for example, applying their own leaves or flowers.

The cards varied in size, as they do today, with many featuring intricate lacy patterns but without the appearance of hearts or other of the imagery that feature today. And yet, they were very popular at the time they were made.

The handwritten message on one of the larger Valentine cards from the collection reads:

It is weakness thus to dwell

On passion that I dare not tell

Such weakness ever will become

For thee my dearest Valentine


“These cards are very much from a time when lots and lots Valentines were written and sent,” says Dr Karen Robson, Head of Archives at the University of Southampton. “When the first penny post comes in during 1840, which allowed people to send and receive more cards and letters across longer distances, something like 200,000 Valentine’s cards were sent in London alone.”

“The more luxury early Valentines were, perhaps, somewhat expensive to purchase, but with the introduction of new printing methods they would have become much more affordable,” Robson continues. “And the fact that by the 1840s so many of them were being sent it’s obvious to see that they became a popular item for quite a large strata of society.”


Slideshow image
The emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the first half of the 19th century gave rise to mass-produced Valentines that could be printed using more 'modern' presses.
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