Sugar and spice… but what are Valentines made of?

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The new John Johnson Pinterest site aims to answer this question by finding examples of each element of valentine manufacture. We draw on valentines not only from the John Johnson and Harding collections at the Bodleian,  but also from Nancy Rosin and the National Valentine Collectors Association (USA), with whom we are delighted to collaborate again this year, from the Museum of London (whose 1871 valentines are online)  and from Michael Russo.  This is only the beginning. We hope that collectors and institutions will draw our attention to other elements to be found in valentines and allow us to pin examples of these, so that we can build up these Pinterest folders into a scholarly resource for anyone interested in valentines.  Please send contributions to jjcoll@bodleian.ox.ac.uk

The manufacture of elaborate valentines in the Victorian era fascinated Charles Dickens and continues to intrigue us today.  These were true confections, made by hand: imaginative, but repetitive. While the printing and embossing was done by men, each of the  female workers (referred to as ‘nymphs’ by Dickens) added a precise piece to the ensemble: a colour from a watercolour pot, a scrap, a paper or fabric flower, a tinsel ornament, a shell, a glass bead, gauze, lace, netting….  The results, protected in boxes, were luxurious love tokens, far from the cruelty of  crude contemporary ‘comic’ valentines.

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Dickens’ article published on Febrary 20 1864 as Cupid’s Manufactory (All the Year Round, volume XI, pp 36-40) is now online through the wonderful Dickens Journals Online project (University of Buckingham).  Flamboyant in style, the article describes in meticulous detail the process of  making valentines at the (unnamed) manufactory of Joseph Mansell and lists the componenents he saw being applied to the embossed lace paper which is the basis of most elaborate valentines.

This page from the Illustrated London News of February 14 1874 shows the whole process, very much as described by Dickens ten years earlier, but at the premises of George Meek and the workshop of Eugene Rimmel.

For more information about valentines in the context of the John Johnson Collection, see the two posts on this blog (February 2012, February 2013) and the online pages from The season for love (exhibition 2010). For the wider context, see the valentine entries from The John Johnson Collection’s Ephemera Resources blog.

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One response to “Sugar and spice… but what are Valentines made of?

  1. What a brilliant idea — this is an amazing resource, and a fanciful way to share the beauty of these magical creations. Spread out like a beautiful mosaic, your “Alphabetical Guide to Cupid’s Manufactory” would definitely make Charles Dickens smile. Glorious images culled from museums, libraries, and private collections, accompanied by informative commentary, will instantly become the essential research tool for every collector and scholar. Additional contributions from viewers will help to expand this incredible opportunity. As a passionate collector, I offer my sincere gratitude for such an enormous undertaking.

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