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  • Writer's pictureKate McGowan

Three Eighteenth Century Inspired Valentine Ideas

Decorated Love Letter c.1809 (Free Library of Philadelphia)

It’s easy to assume—looking down the seasonal aisles of the grocery store at rows of nearly identical metallic chocolate boxes, pink teddy bears, and cards covered in glittery hearts—that Valentine’s Day gift-giving is a modern tradition made up to sell greeting cards. The reality, however, is that Valentine’s Day has been observed in the Americas since at least the 18th century, and the history of Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday goes back much further. While the story of St. Valentine goes back to the early Catholic Church, it was in the middle ages when February 14th came to be seen as a romantic holiday, as people believed the start of songbird mating season happened on the Feast of St. Valentine.

One of the earliest written references to Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday comes from Geoffrey Chaucer in his poem “Parliament of Foules,” written in the 1380s. As early as 1691, Londoner Samuel Pepys mentions the practice of taking another to be one’s “Valentine,” in his diary, writing:

“So up I went and took Mrs. Martha for my Valentine (which I do only for complacency), and Sir W. Batten he go in the same manner to my wife, and so we were very merry.”

While it seems these Valentine pairings were social, rather than romantic in nature, it’s clear from another February 14th entry a few years later that Pepys considered the holiday a day of obligation to his wife, as he writes:

“This morning come up to my wife’s bedside… little Will Mercer to be her Valentine; and brought her name writ upon blue paper in gold letters, done by himself, very pretty; and we were both well pleased with it. But I am also this year my wife’s Valentine, and it will cost me 5l.; but that I must have laid out if we had not been Valentines.”

Handmade Valentines, much like the one gifted to Mrs. Pepys, grew in popularity. By the 18th century, it was commonplace for friends and lovers alike to exchange written notes of affection or small gifts on Valentine’s Day. While these types of gifts are pretty far from the norm today, they might make the perfect unconventional gift.

Hair Jewelry

Gold ring with a pointed oval (marquise) shaped bezel with a composition in seed pearls of a dove bearing an olive branch, perched on a tree. The scene is set over plaited hair, under a rock crystal cover
Gold ring inlaid with pearls, crystal and braided human hair
c.1780s (V&A Museum)

For true history nerds, jewelry made from human hair is most often associated with the Victorian era, but these mementos had been popular since at least the medieval era. In a time before photography, a lock of hair was a common and widely accessible way to remember a lover across any distance or keep a memory of a departed loved one alive. For those with the means, this hair could be set into jewelry, most commonly rings or lockets, allowing the wearer to keep their loved one with them anywhere they went. Human hair was surprisingly well-suited to jewelry making, as it does not readily decompose, and the fine fibers could be used to create intricate designs in the jewelry. Because of this, there are quite a number of hair jewelry pieces surviving in museum collections today. Though this practice has declined in modern times, a quick Etsy search will show several shops still making hair jewelry.

A Miniature Painting of Your Eye

Close in portrait of a young woman's left eye, with her bangs and part of her nose visible. The portrait is set on a gold ring
Eye of Maria Miles Heyward c.1802 (Met Museum)

Miniature paintings first gained popularity among the European elites around the 16th century, as gifts between close family members, lovers, or even between a ruler and their inner circle as a sign of affection and devotion. For lovers who wanted to keep their relationships private, while still keeping their beloved close, Eye Miniatures, also sometimes called Lovers Eyes, were a practical and less taboo alternative. Designed to only reveal the eyes of the subject, an Eye Miniature could be easily worn as a brooch or necklace without announcing the relationship, but would be easily identifiable to the recipient. These miniatures first gained popularity in the 18th century, after George IV, then the Prince of Wales, allegedly gifted one to his companion, Maria Fitzherbert, who he could not marry due to her Catholicism.

A Handwritten Letter

Three views of the same puzzle purse c.1790 (British Postal Museum)

For those who didn’t have the means to commission intricate and costly works of art, handwritten letters were still highly valued for expressing affection. However, not all those who love are gifted with poetic prowess. Less creative 18th century Valentine writers could therefore look to annual publications, such as The Complete English Valentine Writer or The Young Man’s Valentine for snippets of poetry to include in their handmade missives of love. For those of exceptional creativity, a handmade Valentine could take the form of a puzzle purse, consisting of a single piece of paper intricately folded to be its own envelope. You can check out a tutorial on the folding method here.

Another Puzzle Purse, c.1800 (Free Library of Philadelphia)

Happy Valentine's Day!

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