News and press releases

  • Royal Mail
    5 February 2018
    Royal Mail delves into the history of cards to uncover a more personal Valentine's Day
  • Royal Mail is celebrating Valentine’s Day by reaching into the archives and revealing the intriguing history of sending love through the post
  • The historic cards, which can be viewed in an online gallery, feature striking designs of lace, fabric flowers and mechanical elements revealing a hidden message or scene
  • Visitors to the gallery can create their own Victorian puzzle purse card using our special template and step-by-step instructions, available here
  • The collection also includes ‘Vinegar Valentines’, a curious social phenomenon of sending offensive notes on Valentine’s Day.
Royal Mail is celebrating Valentine’s Day by reaching into the archives and revealing the intriguing history of sending love through the post
The historic cards, which can be viewed in an online gallery, feature striking designs of lace, fabric flowers and mechanical elements revealing a hidden message or scene
Visitors to the gallery can create their own Victorian puzzle purse card using our special template and step-by-step instructions, available here
The collection also includes ‘Vinegar Valentines’, a curious social phenomenon of sending offensive notes on Valentine’s Day.

Royal Mail is exploring the history of sending Valentine’s cards, while outlining how different generations of Brits have sought to make their missives more memorable over the years.

An online gallery, illustrated with beautiful examples of cards through the ages, reveals the intriguing history of Valentine’s Day cards. It also provides a step-by-step guide for site visitors to create a Victorian-style puzzle purse card, allowing them to make their own personalised tribute to a loved one.

The Victorian Puzzle Purse card

The tradition of sending Valentine’s cards first began in the late 18th Century. Many people crafted their own intricate cards that were gifts in themselves. The earliest surviving example of a handmade Valentine’s card dates from 1790, and is known as a puzzle purse or courtship envelope.

The elaborate design has to be unfolded in a particular way in order to reveal the hidden verses of poetry inside.

Puzzle Purse Valentine, c.1790. Image courtesy of The Postal Museum

Visitors to the gallery can create their own version of this unusual card with Royal Mail’s special puzzle purse template, available to download here,along with special instructions. You can also watch our playful stop-motion animation of the card being made here.

Intricate printed cards become popular

As Valentine’s cards grew in popularity, printed cards became increasingly fashionable. The example below was the first ever printed card to be published, by John Fairburn in 1797.

This delicate design includes hand-painted cupids, doves and flowers, as well as a lace effect produced by piercing the corners of the paper. However, the messages were a lot more formal and considerably less direct than today’s expressions of love. The handwritten message inside the card reads:

“As I have repeatedly requested you to come I think you must have some reason for not complying with my request, but as I have something particular to say to you I could wish you make it all agreeable to come on Sunday next without fail and in doing you will oblige your well wisher.”

First printed Valentine’s card, published in 1797 by John Fairburn. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust

Valentine’s cards soared in popularity following the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. This allowed standard letters to be sent anywhere in the UK for just a penny, and extended the practice of sending Valentine’s correspondence beyond the upper classes to the whole of society.

With increased demand came the widespread production of highly ornate cards. Many featured mechanical parts which worked to uncover a hidden message or scene.  According to experts at The Postal Museum, some men would spend up to a month’s wages on a card, such as this example with gilt-embossed paper lace and fabric flowers.

'Your love my happiness' Valentine Card, c.1870. Image courtesy of The Postal Museum

A gold scrap at the bottom displays the message. The girl is printed using an early form of multicolour lithography and is surrounded by fabric and waxed flowers.

Vinegar Valentines

However, not all Valentine’s correspondence was so cordial. So-called ‘Vinegar Valentines’ were popular in the Victorian era as a means of insulting or making fun of the recipient.

These venomous cards generally came in the form of rude poems and offensive drawings. To add insult to injury, before the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840, the recipient had to pay the postage charge themselves.

A range of attributes could provide the basis for insults, including the recipient’s looks, temperament, profession or relationship. In this particular Vinegar Valentine, a man resembling a frog is about to kiss an unattractive woman. A rhyme at the bottom reads:

Madam I've found a Beau for you.

So perfect match'd, I'm sure he'ill do

For he like you does take delight

To make his form a very fright.

Design for a Vinegar Valentine, c.1790. Image courtesy of The Postal Museum

Many more intriguing examples of these historic cards can be found in our online gallery.

Sending messages of love through the post is still an important part of Valentine’s Day today. According to the Greeting Card Association, £43.7 million worth of cards was sold in 2016.

Royal Mail Head of Public Affairs, David Gold, said: “It’s touching to see how over the years the Valentine’s card has cemented its role as the primary way of expressing our love for one another on February 14. It’s clear that the personal touch of setting pen to paper has in no way diminished its appeal on Valentine’s Day over that time.

“Royal Mail is proud of the role it has played in the evolution of Valentine’s cards, supporting both a rich history of beautiful design as well as enabling massive social change.

“The puzzle purse card is a great idea for those wishing to send something unique this February.”

Discover our puzzle purse template and instructions here.

Ends

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About Royal Mail plc

Royal Mail plc is the parent company of Royal Mail Group Limited, the leading provider of postal and delivery services in the UK and the UK’s designated universal postal service provider. UK Parcels, International and Letters (“UKPIL”) comprises the company’s UK and international parcels and letters delivery businesses operating under the “Royal Mail” and “Parcelforce Worldwide” brands. Through the Royal Mail Core Network, the company delivers a one-price-goes-anywhere service on a range of parcels and letters products. Royal Mail has the capability to deliver to more than 29 million addresses in the UK, six days a week (excluding UK public holidays). Parcelforce Worldwide operates a separate UK network which collects and delivers express parcels. Royal Mail also owns General Logistics Systems (GLS) which operates one of the largest ground-based, deferred parcel delivery networks in Europe.