Samuel PepysArticles on printed ephemera

Image of valentine

Follies of February

Malcolm Warrington

As the 14th of February gets ever nearer it's time to acknowledge the Victorian comic valentine, a genre of British humour that has largely been ignored but is emerging as one that deserves greater study.

As George Buday states in his splendid work "The History of the Christmas Card": The true, expensive and elaborate love-bearing valentine would be sent only to the queen of the sender's heart but a punning joke, a toy-like trick valentine or a design with comic figures in it would be suitable to many amongst everyone's friends and acquaintances. They would amuse young and old and thus the comic valentine could be and was sent to a number of people simultaneously - to friends and to those of whom the sender wished to make fun.

From the early 19th century engravings, etchings, hand-coloured lithographs and woodcuts were produced by the comic valentine makers that were light-hearted and fun, lampooning the fashion of the day or poking fun at cooks, parlour-maids, policeman, wheelwrights and other workers in everyday occupations of the Victorian era.

The Shop Slave, image of comic valentine

However, lurking beneath these merry valentines were a disruptive,
unsettling type printed crudely on thin, poor quality paper bearing tasteless and offensive imagery accompanied by an equally disagreeable few lines of verse. The festering hostility and pent-up frustrations of the anonymous sender are manifested in these works of hatred and cruelty.

Two valentines of this type are illustrated below and each, in a small way, gives a glimpse into the social history of the era. First there is a depiction
of the ritual of emptying the chamber pot! The battle-axe of a wife threatens her husband with a poker while the hapless soul does her bidding.

Image of Victorian comic valentine

This creature is just fitted for the job
You see him doing - and so help me Bob!
Before I'd marry such a soul-less thing,
I'd hang myself with my own apron string!

Secondly, an unattractive feature of Victorian family life, where domestic violence is perceived to be acceptable. The husband - "his most Mighty Majesty" - rules his Kingdom with his fists perhaps while under the
influence of alcohol. "The Monarch of the Brutes" shows no mercy
for wife or child.

Image of comic valentine

A perfect picture here you see,
With all his noble attributes,
Of his most Mighty Majesty,
"Gorilla - Monarch of the Brutes!"

To conclude on a cheerful note who could not delight in this caricature
of what every dapper young man would be wearing for the mid-Victorian summer season.

Image of comic valentine

Ladies, is this not the man of your dreams? What young maiden could resist this snappy dresser with his magnificent mutton-chop whiskers, fashionable straw hat and stylish monocle? He would, without doubt, bring a flutter to many a young girl's heart!


Ephemera - minor transient documents of every day life