Valentines hide vengeful hearts: Hate mail replaced entreaties 200 years ago. Dalya Alberge discovers how love could hurt

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The Independent Online
FOR 50 years there was one thing worse than not receiving a Valentine card on 14 February: that was receiving a Valentine intended to wound rather than woo.

Between the 1790s and 1840s, Valentines with vicious verses and vignettes were popular - often sent by someone spurned in love. That old saying, 'love hurts', could not have been more appropriate as these were nothing less than hate mail.

Several examples dating from the 1830s and 1840s are about to be sold by Christie's in South Kensington, London. In one, a man recommended to the 'chatterbox' recipient that she have her tongue padlocked; in another, a woman told her male recipient in no uncertain terms that he was a 'stupid . . . old bore'. To leave him in no doubt, it came with an illustration - a man with an enormously bulging stomach. So much for polite


Most of the 'comic' cards were on inferior quality paper - just to rub it in that the recipient was not worth anything more.

As Susan van Wyk, of Christie's, said: 'These cards were intended to be hurtful, and were taken in that way. The recipient would get terribly upset.'

She explained that when the Penny Post was introduced and it was the recipient who paid the postage, fathers of injured daughters demanded refunds on the unpleasant Valentines; between 1797 and 1800, she added, there were thousands of such requests.

But most of the Valentines to be sold by Christie's - about 150 examples dating from 1790 to the 1930s - could not be more romantic. One of the most special is an 1813 example with a hand-written love letter that ends: 'Tho' seasons change and flowers will fade/ My friendship still is true/ The winds may blow, the sun may shine/ While Jane will be my Valentine/ I'll never seek a new./ St Valentine's Day.' It is estimated to fetch about pounds 160.

Many of the Valentines were lovingly hand-made - ornately decorative, with feathers, sea shells and pearls. One 1790 example, a puzzle purse which unfolds to reveal more and more messages, reads: 'My Dear, the heart which you behold, will break when you the same unfold . . .' Its sweet-centre has four red hearts. The estimated price is pounds 80 to pounds 120.

Some of these works of art are still in their original boxes. It was during the Victorian era when Valentine production excelled - inspired by technical innovations that enabled intricate paper designs to be machine-cut, while colour-printing processes became more sophisticated.

During the 1860s, cards with perfumed sachets were developed: among several examples at Christie's are designs by Eugene Rimmel, an eminent Victorian perfumer, estimated at about pounds 350.

The scent from the cotton-wool sachets evaporated long ago, but the romance is as strong as the day their verses were penned. An 1870 perfumed Valentine reads: 'HAPPY LOVE/ Happy the two whose hearts/ are one,/ Bound together by purest love/ They will have peace, and rest and joy,/ Akin to those in heaven above . . .'

For love - and money (estimates pounds 30 to pounds 160) - these love tokens can be bought on 11 February - in time for Valentine's Day.

(Photographs omitted)