Mansion Monday- 19th Century Valentines

Although the origin of St. Valentine is unclear, the consensus is that he was a Christian martyr who died around 270 AD. According to one legend, he wrote a letter to the daughter of his jailer prior to his death and signed it, “from your Valentine,” leading to the phrase associated with the cards exchanged on his feast day, February 14th.[1] His symbols are roses and two birds, as seen above in this Valentine’s Day card from 1909.[2]

In 1849, Godey’s magazine published an article titled “A New Fashion for Valentines,” that opens with two friends commenting on an expensive commercially made valentine one of them has received. Although the valentine is aesthetically impressive, the recipient of the card is not awed by it and agrees with her friend that she doesn’t “think much of valentines” since she receives so many.[3] The 19th century saw the rise of many technologies that made materials widely and commercially available that were once confined to those who had the specialized skills to create them. In other words, the introduction of mass production did more than change how people earned their wages and kept their houses it also changed how they celebrated holidays with one another. Due to the availability of quality materials, Valentines became easy to create and send and became more elaborate as the years progressed. The technique of embossing paper, a process where rag or wood pulp is pressed between steel plates to shape it into the look of intricate lace, was perfected in England during the first part of the 1800s and embossed paper became a staple of the best commercially available valentines.[4]

The above Valentine was sent from a soldier to his sister on February 14, 1863. The card shows not only the use of embossing on the border, but also lithography and three dimensionality, the latter seen in the open flaps of the tent that extend beyond the frame of the card.[5]

 The aim of sending a Valentine was to give the object of one’s affection not only a pretty card to put on display, but also to give them a glimpse of one’s true feelings. How sincere one’s feelings were interpreted to be depended both on the message on the card as much as the look of the card. The text on the Valentine could give an impression of false flattery if it was typed as opposed to handwritten. In the aforementioned Godey’s article, one of the flaws found in the Valentine was that the sentiment on the card was machine printed and not handrwritten. This showed, in the eyes of the woman who received it, that the man who sent the card was not worthy of her affection because “no gentleman of talents would send a Valentine that he did not write…”[6]

Esther Howland, an enterprising woman from Worcester, Massachusetts, began a business selling handmade Valentine cards in 1847 after determining that she could create a better Valentine than the ones being imported from England at the time. Using the finest materials and the help of her friends, Howland’s business grew to make $100,000 annually by the time she retired in 1881.[7]

Although completely handmade Valentines were preferable, it was still acceptable to buy a commercially made card as long as an original sentiment was written in the card. This was, however, easier said than done. Valentines in the Victorian era were not just elaborate postcards—they were, in their truest form, a condensed love letter that showed a side of the sender not shown to the public. Because the written message carried such weight and not everyone is born a poet, those sending Valentines often relied on “familiar phrases that had already demonstrated their ability to convey the most refined and delicate emotions.”[8] These phrases came from books called Valentine Writers that sold for anywhere between 37 cents to 3 dollars and provided not only time-tested verses but also replies to use in response to a Valentine one had received.[9] As the century progressed, many Valentine Writers included specific verses addressed to every manner of career. These were usually peppered with puns and references to the profession, such as this rhyme intended for a butcher:

So nice you dress your Lamb and Veal,
My passion I cannot conceal;
But plainly must declare to you,
I wish that you would dress me too.
When at your shop you take your stand,
Your knife and steel within each hand;
I listen to your pleasing cry,
Which sounds so shrill, d’ye buy, d’ye buy.
Now February shows his face;
And genial Spring comes on apace;
Like birds, ah! prithee let us join,
Upon the day of Valentine.[10]

Not all the verses in the Writers are flattering, however. Some, mostly in the form of a reply, could be quite vicious in their tone and were meant to strongly convey the disapproval of the recipient of the Valentine. For example, a suggested negative response to a grocer who had offered to treat his Valentine to tea was written as follows:

Your letter I’ve weighed,
Am truly afraid,
Many pounds you’re deficient in weight;
And so, Mr. Grocer,
I’d have you to know, Sir,
I care not a fig for your treat.

These kinds of retorts, however, seem tame compared to the genre of cards known as “Vinegar Valentines.” Far from having a loving intent, Vinegar Valentines are mean spirited cards made to “send to annoying neighbors, exacting bosses, harsh schoolmasters, unattractive suitors, and domineering wives.”[12] Serving as a pressure valve in a society with strict rules surrounding etiquette, Vinegar Valentines were sent anonymously. The sender of the valentine could also add insult to injury by sending the card with postage due, putting the recipient in the position of paying for the insult.[13]

This Vinegar Valentine was sent from San Francisco in 1912 and includes the verse “To a Suffragette Valentine: Your vote from me you will not get, I don’t want a preaching suffragette.”[11] Vinegar Valentines were manufactured to suit (and insult) many different trades and personality types.


[1]“St. Valentine,” Catholic Online, accessed February , 2012,  http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=159

[4] Nancy Rosin, “The Valentine: a Tribute to Love,” Victoriana Magazine, accessed February 5, 2012,  http://www.victoriana.com/VictorianValentine/valentinestributetolove.htm

[5] Rosin, “The Valentine: a Tribute to Love”

[6] “A New Fashion for Valentines”

[7] “Making Valentines: a Tradition in America,” last modified January 25, 2011, http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Exhibitions/Valentines/howland.htm

[8] Barry Shank, A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (Columbia University Press: 2004), page 31, accessed February 5, 2012, http://books.google.com/books?id=HazsJwux4r4C&pg=PA40&dq=Valentine’s+Day+Godey’s+Lady’s+Book&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HbEyT9GtOcbc0QGtpMT7Bw&ved=0CGAQ6AEwBjgK#v=onepage&q=Valentine’s%20Day%20Godey’s%20Lady’s%20Book&f=false

[9]Shank,  A Token of My Affections, page 32

[10]“Valentine Writers,” Victoriana Magazine, accessed February 5, 2012, http://www.victorianamagazine.com/valentinesday/valentinewriter.htm

[12] Shank, A Token of My Affections, page 42

[13] Shank, A Token of My Affections, page 43

Posted in 2012, Mansion Monday | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Mansion Monday- The Language of Flowers

An illustration by J. J. Grandville from Les Fleurs Animées (The Flowers Personified). First published in 1847, the floral maidens depicted in Les Fleurs Animées are the personifications of the attributes their flower represents. The text written to accompany these illustrations tells the story of how the flowers, aware that humans use them as metaphors, decide to take human form to see if they live up to the traits they’ve been poetically assigned.[1]

 In the front hall of Victoria Mansion, there are seven canvases adhered to the wall depicting women in peasant clothing in the countryside. Upon close inspection faint writing can be seen on some of the  painted frames surrounding the canvases. The writing identifies the figures as something more than 19th century stock images of a country girl—each represents a specific flower which, in the language of flowers popular during the Victorian era, is symbolic of a particular virtue or sentiment.

The personification of the Heather flower, located in the front hall of Victoria Mansion, represents protection.[2] Ruggles and Olive Morse, who had the mansion built between 1858 and 1860 as a summer home, owned a copy of the book Flowers of Loveliness: Forty Groups of Female Figures Emblematic of Flowers by Thomas Haynes Bayley and Letitia E. Landon. Similar to Grandville’s illustrations in Les Fleurs Animées, the book depicts flowers in human form and elaborates on the connection between the blossoms and their meaning.  

 Although the Victorian age is the era we most associate with the language of flowers, it had existed in popular culture since at least the 17th century. Some of the most notable pre-19th century uses of flowers to convey a hidden meaning can be found in the works of William Shakespeare, who makes reference to at least 200 plant species in his plays.[3] One of the most memorable scenes involving flowers occurs in Hamlet when Ophelia, sick with grief over the death of her father and driven mad by Hamlet’s ill treatment of her, distributes imaginary flowers. It is not just the choice of flowers, but the combination of them that would have related a deeper meaning to a contemporary audience. Her choice to combine fennel and columbine, for example, could be taken as a reference to her disastrous affair with Hamlet since fennel, a plant whose seeds are filling but provide little sustenance, is associated with false flattery and columbine represents ingratitude.[4]

In Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice encounters a patch of flowers and, after wishing aloud that the flowers could talk, is answered by a Tiger Lily that they can talk, providing there’s someone they find worthy of their attention. Tiger Lilies are traditionally associated with pride, making the Tiger Lily’s haughty answer quite fitting.[5]

Floral messages also held great significance in wedding ceremonies in that the flowers used in the bride’s bouquet and gown revealed not just her hopes for the marriage, but also her state of purity on her wedding day. When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, her bridal outfit incorporated orange blossoms, a symbol of innocence  that set an example of fashionable bridal wear for decades to come.[6]

Queen Victoria’s use of orange blossoms in her bridal attire started a tradition continued by her daughters, including Princess Beatrice (pictured above) who married in 1885.[7] When Princess Victoria married in 1858, her bouquet included myrtle clipped from a tree at Osbourne House that was planted from a sprig of myrtle Queen Victoria had received in a nosegay from Prince Albert’s grandmother in 1845. Myrtle is considered to be a symbol of marriage and love.[8]

 The message of flowers, however, is not always a loving one. Some flowers have a negative connotation and can be used to insult rather than flatter. These less than positive sentiments can range from implying rudeness and self-absorption with a bouquet of clotbur and narcissus to professing outright hatred with the use of an orange lily or wild tansy, the latter of which means “I declare war against you.”[9] So the next time you are choosing flowers to give to a loved one, remember that the blooms you choose say as much about your true feelings as they do about your aesthetic preferences.

———————————————————————————-

[1] “Les Fleurs Animeés (the Flowers Personified),” last modified January 13, 2009, http://gardeningwithturtles.blogspot.com/2009/01/les-fleurs-animees-flowers-personified.html

[2] “Language of Flowers,” Victorian Bazaar, accessed February 2, 2012, http://www.victorianbazaar.com/meanings.html

[3]“Study flowers in Ophelia’s garland to learn folk beliefs, Shakespeare,” last modified December 23, 2006,  http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/12/23/HOGVNN39851.DTL

[4] “Study flowers in Ophelia’s garland”

[5] “The Garden of Live Flowers,” last modified October 22, 2007, http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/tenniel/lookingglass/2.1.jpg

[6] “Bridal Flowers: History of Wedding Orange Blossoms,” Victoriana Magazine, accessed February 4, 2012,http://www.victoriana.com/bridal/powell/blossoms.htm

[8] “Language of Flowers”

[9] Louise Cortambert and Frederic Shoberl, The language of flowers: with illustrative poetry… (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1839), accessed February 4, 2012, http://books.google.com/books?id=_lRHAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA275&lpg=PA275&dq=language+of+flowers+insult&source=bl&ots=E3coUPcmov&sig=uLc2Yr_mKDwSLE6iGvFshoRzJsU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=9VAvT5OiD4TV0QGn14XACg&ved=0CD4Q6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=i%20declare&f=false

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Portland History Docent Program, 2012

Once again the Portland History Docent Program is about to begin! This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the history of Portland and become a volunteer at one of the city’s venerable institutions.

Starting in mid-February, the Portland History Collaborative will sponsor the Portland’s History Docents, an annual project that offers ten FREE classes on local history, art, and architecture, as well as on public speaking.

The Portland History Collaborative includes Victoria Mansion, Tate House Museum, Maine Historical Society, Fifth Maine Regiment Museum, Spirits Alive/Friends of Evergreen Cemetery, Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum, and Greater Portland Landmarks.

The course starts on Thursday, February 9 at the Maine Historical Society on Congress Street.  Classes run on consecutive Thursdays, from 9 AM to Noon, through April 26. Graduation will take place at the Maine Historical Society on May 3.

Many of our guides have come through this program – and they thoroughly enjoyed the experience! You can get involved, meet interesting people, and learn a lot about the region we live in, while you volunteer at interesting places. Graduates of the training are asked to donate 6-10 hours a month as docents at one of the sites organizing the program.

For more information or to register, please contact:

Gina Platt, Director of Education at Victoria Mansion

by calling 772-4841 ext. *821 or emailing gplatt@victoriamansion.org 

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Introducing Spire Wire

Welcome to the first issue of Spire Wire, the electronic newsletter of Victoria Mansion.  The alliterative title was the brain child of Curator Arlene Palmer Schwind and melds a nineteenth century type of communication, by wire, with an allusion to two of the Mansion’s distinctive features – the spires that crown the Carriage House cupola and the Mansion’s tower.  Because it is an electronic newsletter of a wireless age, we felt it conveyed the aura of the Mansion’s period to a modern audience.

Spire Wire will be issued four times yearly: in February, May, August, and November.  In between timely updates will take place in the then-current issue to keep Mansion members informed about events and activities going on at any time. Whether it is current research into any of the myriad of subjects associated with the Mansion, its collection, or its past occupants, current restoration initiatives, event information, or members-only specials in the Museum Shop, you will find it here.  We look forward to your continuing visits!

and don’t forget…

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