Charles Dickens, in his article Cupid’s Manufactory (All the Year Round, February 20 1864), writes of a visit to the firm of “Cupid and Company” (actually Joseph Mansell) and minutely describes the process of making an elaborate valentine. He reveals that ‘the common kinds and the comic kinds are drawn out of doors [i.e. off-site] …. The subjects of some of the comic valentines are copied from drawings in Punch and his humorous contemporaries, but the great majority of them are original, and deal mainly with the passing follies and fashions of the day – crinoline, the Dundreary whiskers, the jacket coat, the spoon bonnet, and so forth.’
‘Comic’ valentines are the dark and lesser-known side of the tradition of sending valentines. Far from the lace paper, tinsel, scraps and feathers of the traditional elaborate valentine, they are simply and crudely printed on single or folded sheets, and coloured by stencil. While this is also true of cheaper valentines, it is the content which surprises. Both illustration and text were intended to insult the recipient who (before pre-paid postage was introduced in 1840) had to pay to receive them.
The London Review of Books in 1865 described them as ‘scandalous productions, vilely drawn, wretchedly engraved, and hastily dabbed over with staring colours …. an outlet for every kind of spiteful innuendo, for every malicious sneer, for every envious scoff.’
John Johnson collected 20 boxes of valentines (of which 4 are comic) and several albums. The valentines collected by Walter Harding are also kept with the John Johnson Collection, and these include 14 boxes of later American comic valentines, published by McLoughlin Bros. of New York. While in England the valentine itself diminished in popularity and quality at the beginning of the 20th century and the vogue for ‘comic’ valentines with it, some of the McLoughlin comic valentines were published as late as 1963.
The exhibition leaflet which accompanied 2010 display of valentines: The Season for Love: a collection of choice valentines from the John Johnson Collection is online, together with the poster, and images of the exhibits with captions.