Valentine’s Day Cards – The John Lewis Printing Collection

Written by Louise Cowan, Trainee Liaison Librarian

Victorian Valentine's - a folded lace card

Victorian Valentine’s – a folded lace card

February 14th celebrates Valentine’s Day, the Christian feast day of the martyred St Valentine of Rome. While we know that the celebration originated around 498 A.D when it was instated by Pope Gelasius, little is actually known of St Valentine and his life. The most popular version recounts the story of Valentinus, a priest who was imprisoned and sentenced to death by Emperor Claudius. While in jail “he befriended his jailer’s daughter and on 14 February 270, wrote her letter signed ‘From your Valentine’,” (Lewis, 1976). The day’s ties to love and romance however, go back much further, to the pagan fertility festival, Lupercalia, which was celebrated across 13-15th February.

Despite its long history, the first written Valentine greeting is often attributed to Charles, Duke of Orleans who wrote romantic notes to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415, (Novareinna). The seventeenth century saw Valentine’s Day become ‘the most festive day of the year,’ (Lewis, 1976), and it was popular enough to be mentioned by Shakespeare in Ophelia’s lament in Hamlet – (Act 4, Scene 5) (Telegraph, 2010).

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, /All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.

However, Valentine’s Day cards did not come into fashion until the end of the eighteenth century and though early cards were often hand-made, the trend developed quickly so that by the beginning of the 19th century, cards had become ‘highly complicated pieces of print and assembly with lace-like embossing.’ (Lewis, 1976)

Victorian Valentine's Day Cards

The embossing and lace-effect seen in the cards above from our John Lewis Printing Collection was achieved ‘by placing the paper on an engraved die and pressing it,’ (Lewis, 1976). There were however, numerous styles of Victorian Valentine’s cards in production, including: acrostic verses spelling out the loved one’s first name; puzzle purses, a folded puzzle containing verses to be read in a certain order; love knots and rebus riddles, Valentine’s which substituted words for pictures, (Novareinna). This rebus from our John Lewis printing collection is quite simple but effective:

Rebus style Valentine's Card

A number of the cards in our John Lewis printing collection are also quite humorous (and a little bit cheeky!) particularly the card on the right (below) which offers ‘Something to tickle my fancy – a little corrective to be applied when the patient is troublesome’!

Victorian Valentine's Days Cards

As well as cards, the collection also features a small number of love notes, including this letter with a charming little poem:

John Lewis Printing Collection - Valentine's Letter

‘’In vain I’ve racked my brains,
In vain I’ve taken endless pains,
For not a single thought will come,
Except, “I love you”, little one!
I love your shy and gentle air,
I love your curls of golden hair,
I love your little winning wiles,
Your merry laugh, your beaming smiles,
Your bonny brow, your eyes so blue,
Your parted lips of rosy hue
I love your cheeks, your chin, your nose
I almost think I love your toes!
I love you all dear Georgie mine,
I am your faithful Valentine.”


As with postcards the introduction of the penny stamp boosted Valentine’s card sales in 1840 and the tradition of sending anonymous greetings came into fashion. However, the rise in popularity of Christmas cards in the nineteenth century eventually saw to a decline in Valentine’s (Lewis, 1976). Today, Valentine’s Day remains the second most card-heavy celebration with an estimated 1 billion cards being sent worldwide in 2010. (Telegraph, 2010)



Lewis, J (1976) Collecting Printed Ephemera. London: Cassell and Collier Macmillan

Telegraph (2010)



Victorian Rituals

Christmas Cards – The John Lewis Printing Collection

Written by Louise Cowan, Trainee Liaison Librarian

Our lovely John Lewis Printing Collection comes complete with a fabulous and fun range of Christmas cards dating to their origin in the Victorian period.

xmascardsAccording to Lewis (1976), Charles Dickens had a heavy influence on the initial themes of Christmas cards. Published seven years before the first card in 1836, ‘Pickwick Papers’ encouraged, ‘pictures of stage coaches, snowclad landscapes, robin red-breasts and rosy-cheeked children sliding on the ice.’ (Lewis, 1976)

Lewis describes many of the Victorian cards he discusses as having come from the collection of a Miss Cissie Crane, whose album included nearly 200 cards (Lewis, 1976). Our favourite kittens with moveable heads came from this collection too:


Chromo-lithography was commonly used to create early Christmas cards, but there was a boom in ‘do-it-yourself’ creations after the Second World War (Lewis, 1976). For example, this card by Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller from roughly 1955 uses an old postcard from the early 1900s:Photo 19-11-2015, 15 11 57 - Copya

Lewis (1976) recounts another amusing way to reuse Christmas cards that he discovered in the 31 December 1948 issue of The Spectator: simply add your name to the bottom of the card you receive, send it on to your friends and let them ponder the mystery of the original sender’s inscription!

You’ll find more of our John Lewis Christmas cards featured in the # calendar on Twitter and in our #12DaysOfChristmas count down on Instagram.

Merry Christmas!



Lewis, J (1976) Collecting Printed Ephemera. London: Cassell and Collier Macmillan