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A Victorian Valentine's card

5 romantic Victorian Valentine's Day traditions

Image: A Valentine's Day card from the Victorian era | Public Domain

Candy, chocolates, love hearts, and soft toys; Valentine’s Day has become a commercial holiday driven by greeting card companies and confectioners, but you might be surprised to hear that its origins are far more ancient.

The modern-day evolution of the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, Valentine's Day, has been celebrated with different traditions across the globe for millennia. While Valentine’s Day had gained in popularity in the UK throughout the 17th century, no culture celebrated the day with more enthusiasm and excitement than the Victorians.

Here are five fun, quirky, and downright weird ways that the Victorians celebrated Valentine's Day.

1. Handmade cards

Long before the first mass-produced cards that we see today hit the shelves, Valentine’s Day greeting cards were handmade. With the expression of feeling or emotion heavily frowned upon as improper in Victorian England, many cherished the cards and letters they received for Valentine's Day far more than those they got for Christmas or birthdays.

With such high importance placed on the small tokens of affection, you needed to send something extra special to your love interest to show that you cared, and no love token was more personal than a handmade card.

However, while you might think of more modern styles of greeting cards that are sleek, adorned with hearts, and maybe hold a short poem or sentiment inside, Victorian Valentines were something else entirely.

The overall theme for Victorian Valentine’s card was maximalism. The more gaudy, tacky, or over-the-top embellishments a card had the bigger your declaration of love. From lace doilies to paintings, pressed flowers, and even a dead canary: there was no limit to what the Victorians would use to get their romantic point across.

2. Puzzle purse

As well as bright and busy greeting cards, another way that the Victorians would declare their affection was with a handmade token called a puzzle purse. Similar in design to the origami fortune teller that you might have made a school, the puzzle purse was made from a single piece of paper that was decorated and folded to conceal a secret romantic message.

Much like handmade cards, puzzle purses were a handmade token of affection that pre-dated the Victorian era. Still, they boomed in popularity as a way of letting someone know that they had a secret admirer. Often hand decorated with flowers and love hearts, puzzle purses were a more discreet way for the Victorians to declare their affections.

3. Vinegar Valentines

While the majority of messages sent for Valentine's Day were ones of romance and affection, the Victorians believed that it was a day to get all of the feelings that you held for someone out in the open - even if they weren’t exactly kind.

Vinegar Valentines were a popular tradition that allowed the Victorians to really let someone know what they thought of them. Just as a handmade card or letter would be sent from a secret admirer, a vinegar Valentine would be sent from a secret nemesis and was known for leaving a sour taste in the mouths of their recipients.

Often decorated with an unflattering caricature and a cheeky poem, vinegar Valentines could call out their intended recipient for everything from their drunken behaviour to being tight with money or notorious flirts. A tongue-in-cheek form of character assassination, it’s no wonder that this is a tradition that has remained firmly in the past.

4. Flower language

Roses are red, and violets are blue - but did you know that each flower holds its meaning? The language of flowers was another way to surreptitiously express your feelings to someone without having to say the words out loud. Everything from colour to flower type had a meaning, so a well-curated bouquet of flowers could speak volumes without you ever having to say or write a word.

Red roses, for example, expressed intense love and passion, while pink was symbolic of a less intense romance, and white signified innocence and purity. Purple violets indicated that someone couldn’t stop romantically thinking about you, and peonies signified feeling bashful.

And it wasn’t just a way of sending hopeful intentions to your crush - flowers could be used to turn down potential suitors or cool off fiery passions that weren’t quite requited. A yellow carnation for disdain could turn any hopeful suitor cold, while a yellow rose would establish that you were firmly in the friend zone.

5. Love gloves

If secret notes, carefully considered flower arrangements, and anonymous greeting cards weren’t enough ways for Victorian romantics to flirt, there was another way to express your feelings for someone from across the room secretly: gloves.

While a love glove has a wholly different meaning today, in Victorian England, it was a subtle and intimate way of flirting or communicating intentions - especially in a crowded or public setting.

How a woman held her gloves could indicate everything from ‘I want to get to know you’ to ‘kiss me’ or even ‘I can’t stand you’. Actions could be subtle, like twirling them around your fingers to indicate that you’re being watched, to something a bit blunter, like putting them away to suggest that you were annoyed.