Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: The Victorian Cactus Craze? Succulents in Nineteenth-Century Poetry

By Lindsay Wells, PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison & Dissertation Fellow, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

Lindsay Wells

Lindsay Wells, PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison & Dissertation Fellow, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

When we think about Victorian houseplants, the phrases fern craze and orchidmania likely spring to mind.  Or maybe it is images of palm-festooned parlors and conservatories, such as those found in the colorful paintings of James Tissot.  Many forms of houseplant horticulture can trace their roots back to nineteenth-century Britain, where ferns, orchids, and palms enjoyed perennial favor amongst home gardeners.  But what about the humble cactus?

At first glance, cacti and other succulents may seem more of a contemporary phenomenon than a Victorian one.  From echeverias and jade plants to sedums and aloes, these plants have become the darlings of many a Twitter feed and Instagram account devoted to indoor gardening. [Figures 1-3]

Yet succulents were also grown extensively in the nineteenth century, when, as Andreas Stynen notes, the modern concept of “houseplants” first emerged (219).  In her groundbreaking guide to indoor gardening, Flora Domestica (1823), Elizabeth Kent included a lengthy entry on the “Great-flowered Creeping Cereus”—a type of cactus renown for its bright blossoms (84). The horticultural polymath Jane Loudon also wrote about the merits of cereus cacti, which she described in her Practical Instruction in Gardening for Ladies (1841) as “singular looking plants” that “should be kept in only green-house heat” (394). [Figure 4] Meanwhile, terrarium inventor Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward recommended “Aloes, Cactuses, Mesembryanthemums, and other succulent plants” to readers of his 1842 treatise on ornamental plant cases (60), as did houseplant expert Elizabeth A. Maling, whose handbook In-Door Plants (1862) featured a pink-flowering cactus in its frontispiece. As these and countless other texts demonstrate, the popularity of potted succulents has proved as hardy and long-lasting as the plants themselves.

My doctoral dissertation, “Plant-Based Art: Indoor Gardening and the British Aesthetic Movement,” explores how houseplant horticulture influenced botanical imagery in Victorian painting and literature. During my recent fellowship at the Armstrong Browning Library, I identified and analyzed various houseplants that found their way into nineteenth-century poems, particularly those from the Library’s 19th Century Women Poets Collection.  Orchids and geraniums are recurrent motifs in these works, as are ferns, palms, and other leafy greens commonly associated with the Victorian parlor garden. [Figure 5]

Fig. 5, Red Geranium watercolor from E.F.C.’s Flowers Culled from Browning’s Poems (DATE), Armstrong Browning Library

Fig. 5, Red Geranium watercolor from E.F.C.’s Flowers Culled from Browning’s Poems (no date), Armstrong Browning Library

However, I also encountered a surprising number of poems about succulent plants.

While some of these works, such as Emily Shaw Forman’s “Prickly Pear (Cactus)” (1895) or Ina Coolbrith’s “Retrospect (In Los Angeles)” (1895), describe cacti growing in the wild or in outdoor gardens, others reference specimens that the Victorians typically kept indoors. [Figures 6-7]

These included the aloe, the night-blooming cereus, and the cactus speciosissimus.  By comparing these poems to nineteenth-century gardening books, I realized that Victorian poets and horticulturalists valued many of the same aesthetic characteristics of the succulent family.  In what follows, I want to highlight some of the poems I examined at the Armstrong Browning Library that illustrate how different nineteenth-century writers took advantage of the expressive potential of succulents in their work.

Much like today, succulents of the Victorian period enjoyed widespread popularity, thanks in large part to their reputation as a low-maintenance houseplant.  Resistant to dry and dusty air, succulents could withstand the conditions of nineteenth-century homes that were heated by coal fires or gas.  Horticulturalist Charles McIntosh noted in 1838 that cacti “require much less labour and attention” than “other exotic plants,” adding that “many of them will exist a long time and without water, without sustaining injury” (171).  The Victorian nurseryman Benjamin Samuel Williams was of the same mind, though he described the appeal of succulents a bit more bluntly: “they will bear with impunity a greater amount of neglect than almost any other plants” (38).

Because of their robust nature, succulents offered nineteenth-century poets a compelling vegetal motif for exploring themes of longsuffering, patience, and fortitude.  The succulent that particularly embodied these virtues was the aloe.  Since they often took decades to flower, aloes, or agaves, earned the colloquial name of “Century Plant.”  Embodying a temporality of the singular and the exceptional, aloes could serve as poetic shorthand for events of extreme rarity.  “Thou art the aloe of the skies” [30] exclaimed American writer Rosa Vertner Jeffrey in her poem about the 1858 sighting of Donati’s Comet, which only passes the earth once every two-thousand years (81).  Poets also refer to this succulent in poems about history.  For example, in “On the Celebration of the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the Foundation of Trinity College, Cambridge” (1849), Anna Potts likens the establishment of a storied university college to the long life of an aloe plant:

’Tis said, once only in a hundred years,

The unbending aloe its bright blossom rears,

But, as those years roll silently between.

Far spread its roots, its leaves are thick and green; [55-58]

[…]

Image of that brave plant whose leaves expand,

Whose roots are deepening in the grateful land,

First planted by the royal Tudor’s hand.

Fostered by sunshine, sheltered from the blast.

Three centuries have o’er it scatheless past [61-65]

(82)

By drawing parallels between Trinity College and the steadfast, “unbending” leaves of the aloe, Potts implies that this institution “planted by the royal Tudor’s hand” will continue to flourish for many a century to come.

Fig. 8, Dora Greenwell’s “The Aloe,” from Carmina Crucis (1869), Armstrong Browning Library

Dora Greenwell, meanwhile, used the lengthy growth cycle of the aloe to extoll human affections founded upon patience, rather than fancy.  Instead of the common garden flowers—“subtle fancies light and gay” [4]—that bloom each summer only to “spend their souls away in fond excess” [14], Greenwell’s speaker in “The Aloe” (1869) celebrates “A flower that is not fair, / But wondrous” and “rare” [22-24], which won’t culminate in a fleeting moment of passion (3-4). [Figure 8] Such works show how poets mapped concepts of tenacity and constancy onto these sturdy plants.

Another attribute that made succulents fashionable amongst not only gardeners but also poets was their aesthetic charm.  As Williams observed in his handbook on Choice Stove and Greenhouse Ornamental-Leaved Plants (1876, 2nd ed.), “these plants neither lack beauty of form nor diversity of colour, nor singularity or even grotesqueness of appearance” (37). With their sculptural stems and colorful flowers, succulents afforded writers an opportunity to indulge in detailed descriptive passages about vegetal beauty.  Take, for instance, Lydia Howard Sigourney’s “To the Cactus Speciosissimus” (c.1841), which opens with the following tribute:

Who hung thy beauty on such rugged stalk,

Thou glorious flower?

Who pour’d the richest hues,

In varying radiance, o’er thine ample brow,

And like a mesh those tissued stamens laid

Upon thy crimson lip? —  [1-6]

In a later passage, Sigourney adds that these brilliant red flowers:

“[…] bidd’st the queenly rose with all her buds

Do homage, and the green-house peerage bow

Their rainbow coronets.” [11-13]

(34)

Similar paeans to the grace and grandeur of cactus blossoms appear in poems by Lady Flora Hastings and Mrs. Graham Campbell.

However, as Kent notes in Flora Domestica, the beauty of flowering cacti was often “short-lived,” for the most striking blooms lasted only a “very short duration” (84).  Many nineteenth-century poets singled out the night-blooming cereus as both the most beautiful and the most transient of such blossoms.  As its name suggests, the night-blooming cereus—a catchall term for several cactus varieties—produces its large, fragrant, snowy blossoms only one night per year.  In her language of flowers handbook, Flora’s Lexicon (1858), Catherine Waterman calls the night-blooming cereus “one of our most splendid hothouse plants.”  Its flower, she adds, is not just “remarkable” because of it is great size and luminous petals, but also because of “the rapidity with which it decays” (150).  Julia Emily Gordon similarly speaks of “transient glee” and “evanescence” (59) when describing a cereus blossom in her poem “The Carnival of Night” (1880), while Eliza Lee Cabot Follen compares the “transient lustre” of this flower to the fading of life’s “sweetest pleasures” and “brightest blessings” (107).

As these poems show, succulents possess an appealing paradoxical complexity that can simultaneously epitomize ephemerality and endurance.  Both the aloe and the cereus weather long seasons of growth before they start to bloom, thereby concentrating a wide spectrum of emotional significance into a single plant.  The current popularity of succulents suggests that these plants are here to stay, and there remains plenty of research to be done on their cultivation history.  I am deeply grateful to the staff of the Armstrong Browning Library for supporting my research on this project and for sharing these collections with me.

 

Works Cited

Coolbrith, Ina. Songs from the Golden Gate. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1895.

Follen, Eliza Lee Cabot. Poems by Mrs. Follen. Boston: William Crosby & Company, 1839.

Forman, Emily Shaw. Wild-Flower Sonnets. Boston: Joseph Knight Company, 1895.

Gordon, Julia Emily. Songs and Etchings in Shade and Sunshine. New York: Scribner and Welford, 1880.

Greenwell, Dora. Carmina Crucis. London: Bell and Daldy, 1869.

Jeffrey, Rosa Vertner. The Crimson Hand, and Other Poems. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1881.

Kent, Elizabeth. Flora Domestica, or the Portable Flower-Garden; with Directions for the Treatment of Plants in Pots. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1823.

Loudon, Jane. Practical Instruction in Gardening for Ladies. Second. London: John Murray, 1841.

Maling, E.A. In-Door Plants, and How to Grow Them for the Drawing-Room, Balcony, and Greenhouse. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1862.

McIntosh, Charles. The Greenhouse, Hot House, and Stove. London: William S. Orr and Co., 1838.

Potts, Anna H. Sketches of Character and Other Pieces in Verse. London: John W. Parker, 1849.

Sigourney, Lydia Howard. Selected Poems. Philadelphia: Edward C. Biddle, 1843.

Stynen, Andreas. “‘Une Mode Charmante’: Nineteenth-Century Indoor Gardening Between Nature and Artifice.” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes 29, no. 3 (2009): 217–34.

Ward, Nathaniel Bagshaw. On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. London: John Van Voorst, 1842.

Waterman, Catharine H. Flora’s Lexicon: An Interpretation of the Language and Sentiment of Flowers. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1858.

Williams, Benjamin Samuel. Choice Stove and Greenhouse Ornamental-Leaved Plants. 2nd ed. London: Published by the Author, 1876.

Introducing…The Victorian Collection at the Armstrong Browning Library: a Baylor Libraries Digital Collection—Religion and Politics

By Melinda Creech, PhD, Graduate Assistant 

Marie Ada Molineux (1856-1936), Author, Bacteriologist, Psychologist, Charter Member of the Boston Browning Society. Nell Pomeroy O'Brien, painter. 1936. Courtesy of the Armstrong Browning LibraryThe Armstrong Browning Library is pleased to announce the release of The Victorian Collection online. This new digital collection contains over 3,000 letters and manuscripts connected to prominent and lesser known British and American figures and complements the Armstrong Browning Library’s unparalleled collection of materials relating to the Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The letters and manuscripts in this growing collection can be browsed and searched by date, author, keyword, or first line of text. Letters from the collection are currently on display in Hankamer Treasure Room.

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Religion

Many of the letters in the Victorian Collection are from clergymen. The letters run the gamut of different types of Christian faith. There are letters from Catholics, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Universalists, Friends, Brethren, “High” Church, “Low” Church, “Broad” Church, and even Baptists, written by such well-known correspondents at John Henry Newman, Charles Kingsley, William Johnson Fox, Frederick Temple, and John Keble.

One album of letters that is particularly interesting contains a group of letters collected by Charles Room. Room was a student at the Baptist College in Bristol, presided over the Baptist Church in Evesham, Worcestershire and was assistant pastor to Dr. John Rippon at New Park Street Baptist Chapel in Southwark and minister of the Baptist Church, Meeting House Alley, Portsea.

In this letter R. W. Overbury, pastor of the Baptist Church at Eagle Street, London from 1834 until his death in 1868, invites Charles Room to preach at his church.

Letter from R. W. Overbury to Charles Room. Undated. Page 1.

Letter from R. W. Overbury to Charles Room. Undated. Page 2.

*****

Rev. John Rooker, an Anglican minister, was the Director of the Church Missionary Children’s Home, Highbury Grove, Islington, and vicar of St. Peter’s, Clifton Road, Bristol. The letters he collected in the Rooker Album consist of a large number of letters to and from clergy, including this letter from Brooke Foss Westcott, biblical scholar, theologian, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, and Bishop of Durham. He is perhaps most well known for co-editing, with Fenton John Anthony Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881. In this tender letter Westcott answers Rooker’s question about a reference in a book responding:

My great hope is that I may perhaps sometimes encourage a young student to linger with patient faith over the words of Scripture and hear then the message which he needs. We need all of us to write out the promise εν τη υπομονη κτησασθαι τας ψυχας.

[“In patience possess your souls” Luke 21:19]

Letter from B. F. Westcott to John Rooker. 9 August 1884. Page 1.

Letter from B. F. Westcott to John Rooker. 9 August 1884. Pages 2 and 3.

*****

The ABL has many letters from Anglican bishops, including letters from Christopher Wordsworth, youngest brother of William Wordsworth and Bishop of Lincoln. In this letter to an unidentified correspondent, Wordsworth mentions his publication, “Pastoral to the Wesleyans.”

Letter from Christopher Wordsworth, Bishop of Lincoln to an Unidentified Correspondent. 13 March 1870. Page 1.

Letter from Christopher Wordsworth, Bishop of Lincoln to an Unidentified Correspondent. 13 March 1870. Pages 2 and 3

*****

Comparative religion was an important focus in the nineteenth century as scholars such as Edwin Arnold began to introduce research on world religions. In this letter Emily Marion Harris, English novelist, poet, and educationist, finds a point of comparison between the Book of Common Prayer and prayers that Arnold described in his book, Pearls of Our Faith.

Letter from Emily Marion Harris to Elizabeth Purefoy Fitzgerald. 21 November [No year]. Page 1.

Letter from Emily Marion Harris to Elizabeth Purefoy Fitzgerald. 21 November [No year]. Page 2.

Letter from Emily Marion Harris to Elizabeth Purefoy Fitzgerald. 21 November [No year]. Page 3.

*****

Another interesting set of letters and manuscripts come from Dryden Phelps. Dryden Phelps was the nephew of William Lyon Phelps, Browning scholar and founder of the Fano Club, an annual gathering of Browning aficionados who have visited “The Guardian Angel” painting in Fano, Italy, about which Robert Browning wrote a poem. Dryden Phelps, a missionary to China, reveals in this letter his missions strategy of using the poetry of Browning and Tennyson to introduce his Chinese students to English literature and the tenets of Christianity. Dryden attributes Browning’s popularity in China to the fact that he is “terse, succinct, witty, epigrammatic, unique in a brilliant use of words, profound, a lover of nature, and of human nature, a lover of life.” A Chinese poetry scholar with whom he had studied commented that “he [Browning] is like one of our own poets!” Dryden surmises that one of the highest services we can render China at this moment is to open their eyes to such men as Browning.”

Letter from Dryden Phelps to A. J. Armstrong. 3 May 1928. Page 1.

Letter from Dryden Phelps to A. J. Armstrong. 3 May 1928. Page 2.

Letter from Dryden Phelps to A. J. Armstrong. 2 October 1928. Page 1.

Letter from Dryden Phelps to A. J. Armstrong. 2 October 1928. Page 2.

*****

The following manuscripts are Phelps’s students’ efforts to translate the poetry of Browning and Tennyson into Chinese.

Chinese Manuscript by an Unidentified Author. Undated.

“Then Welcome Each Rebuff” by Robert Browning, Translated by an Unidentified Author. Undated. Recto.

“Then Welcome Each Rebuff” by Robert Browning, Translated by an Unidentified Author. Undated. Verso.

“Flower in a Crannied Wall” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Translated by Paul Liu. Undated.

“Flower in a Crannied Wall” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Translated by Ghipi C. Chang. Undated.

*****

Scholars in the nineteenth century were very interested in archeology and reclaiming antiquities. Many letters describe trips to the Middle East to search for treasures. This letter from the Director of the British Museum records a contribution by Mrs. Norris toward the purchase of the Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript written over 1600 years ago, containing the Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. Edwin L. Norris was a British philologist, linguist, and orientalist who wrote or compiled numerous works on the languages of Asia and Africa. It is unclear what relationship Mrs. R. Norris had to Edwin Norris, if any. Arundell James Kennedy Esdaile was a British librarian, and Secretary to the British Museum from 1926 to 1940.

Letter from Arundell Esdaile to Mrs. Norris. 30 October 1934.

*****

In this letter Thomas Hill Lowe, English cleric and Dean of Exeter (1839-1861), responds to Henry Phillpotts’s criticism of his sermon about changing the Athanasian Creed in the Book of Common Prayer. Henry Phillpotts was the Bishop of Exeter from 1830–1869.

Letter from Thomas Hill Lowe to Henry Phillpotts. 21 February 1852. Page 1.

Letter from Thomas Hill Lowe to Henry Phillpotts. 21 February 1852. Page 2.

*****

Joseph Barber Lightfoot, an English theologian, Bishop of Durham, and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, writes to and T. G. Bonney, an English geologist, president of the Geological Society of London, and tutor at St. John’s College, Cambridge, bemoaning the rivalry between Trinity and St. John’s. He is also annoyed by religious newspapers, writing:

I quite agree with you about religious newspapers. Nothing more nearly drives me to despair than the correspondence in the _______ and _____. I think possibly that St. Paul would also have failed to recognize any likeness to himself in the pictures of him which are drawn by many of our German friends

Todd Still, Dean and Professor of Christian Scriptures at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University, suggests that one of the newspapers could be The Church Times. He adds, “As for Lightfoot’s remark regarding ‘German friends,’ this is his gracious way of saying that he categorically disagrees with the portrait of St. Paul being painted by F. C. Baur and the Tubingen School.”

Letter from Joseph Barber Lightfoot to T. G. Bonney. 18 May 1875. Page 1.

Letter from Joseph Barber Lightfoot to T. G. Bonney. 18 May 1875. Pages 2 and 3.

 

Politics

Political letters also comprise a large portion of the Victorian Letters Collection. Our collections contains letters from Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, William Ewart Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, and others. The collection also contains many letters from military leaders. The following are only a sampling of the many.

In this letter Lilian Whiting, American journalist, editor, poet, short story writer, and member of the Boston Browning Society, writes about her attendance at a dinner in New York on March 1, 1912 honoring William Howells’s seventy-fifth birthday. Howells was an American novelist, literary critic, and playwright. President Taft and Winston Churchill gave speeches there. Winston Churchill was a young man of thirty-eight who had just become First Lord of the Admiralty the previous year. Whiting comments on and quotes a from Churchill’s speech, rather uncomplimentarily. She writes

Excepting the President, the host, the guest of honor & Mrs. [Alden], – the speeches were unspeakably & ludicrously poor! Winston Churchill’s was as common & as cheap as a table waiter might have made – “As a midshipman”, he preceded to give a chapter of cheap reminiscences of himself – the only link with Mr. Howells being that he had a copy of ‘Silas Lapham’ & “climbed the mast with [it] Howells went up & has been going up ever since” & the copy of ‘Silas’ fell out of his pocket to the deck & that is the only time Howells ever went down!

Letter from Lilian Whiting to Miss Carrie. 5 March 1912. Page 1.

Letter from Lilian Whiting to Miss Carrie. 5 March 1912. Page 2.

*****

In this letter to an Unidentified Correspondent, Benjamin Disraeli, then serving his second term as Prime Minister of Great Britain, mentions two residences, Marlboro House, the residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and Portland Place, the residence of the unidentified correspondent.

Letter from Benjamin Disraeli an Unidentified Correspondent. 23 May 1879. Page 1.

Letter from Benjamin Disraeli an Unidentified Correspondent. 23 May 1879. Page 2.

*****

The Armstrong Browning Library has several letters written by William Ewart Gladstone, British statesman and Prime Minister.

This letter was accompanied a pamphlet on vivisection. Gladstone explains that the subject is one “I have never been able to examine with all the care it deserves but I have always had & expressed the opinion that the practice, . . . ought to be confined within the limits of strict & well defined necessity.”

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to [J. E. Walker]. 27 September 1878. Page 1.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to [F. E. Walters]. 27 September 1878. Page 2.

*****

This letter, written to Charles Lee Lewes, may perhaps be referring to Essays and Leaves From a Notebook, by George Eliot, early essays written by Eliot, published posthumously. She had bequeathed all her literary rights to Charles Lee Lewes, the eldest son of George Henry Lewes, her residuary legatee and sole executor of her estate.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to C. L. Lewes. 23 October 1889. Page 1.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to C. L. Lewes. 23 October 1889. Page 2.

*****

In this letter, Gladstone reports that he has no occasion for the works sent by Clement Sadler Palmer, a London publisher and antiquarian bookseller.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to Clement Sadler Palmer. 3 August 1895. Page 1.

Letter from William Ewart Gladstone to Clement Sadler Palmer. 3 August 1895. Page 2.

*****

Robert Peel, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for a second term in 1841, writes to Frederick Marryat, a Royal Navy officer and novelist, complimenting him, assuring him that he has received his letter, but stating that it is not in his power to speak to him on the subject of his letter

Letter from Robert Peel to Frederick Marryat. 11 July 1841. Page 1.

Letter from Robert Peel to Frederick Marryat. 11 July 1841. Page 2.

*****

This manuscript, written by Napoleon III, provides a guardian for the chateau of his mother.

Letter from Napoleon III to an unidentified correspondents. Undated.

*****

This fragment in German written from Konigsburg is signed by Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, known as the “Romantic” monarch.

Unidentified Manuscript, signed by Friedrich Wilhelm IV. 1844.

*****

In this undated letter, found in the DeCastro Album, William Pitt the Younger, British statesman, declines an “excursion up the river” with  Walter Scott, Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer, but invites him to London to discuss some business.

Letter from  William Pitt to Sir Walter Scott. 15 August [Undated]. Page 1.

Letter from William Pitt to Sir Walter Scott. 15 August [Undated]. Pages 2 and 3.

On the verso of the letter is a note in an unidentified hand that reads: “To my father.”

Letter from William Pitt to Sir Walter Scott. 15 August [Undated]. Verso.

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For the complete series of blog posts on the Victorian Collection:

Literary figures represented in the Victorian Collection are covered in the blog series: Beyond the Brownings

19th Century Valentines

"Wilt Thou Be Mine?" Victorian Valentine Collection, Armstrong Browning Library

“Wilt Thou Be Mine?” Victorian Valentine Collection, Armstrong Browning Library

Much of today’s Valentine’s Day expectations were created by the Victorians. While sending and receiving Valentines had been fairly commonplace before the 19thcCentury, it was the Industrial Revolution’s advances in paper making and printing which greatly reduced the cost of the traditional, small, and elaborate Valentines. Machine made paper and new printing processes and techniques allowing for combined colors (chromolithography), metallic inks, and die-cutting worked together to decrease the price of Valentines. Victorian Valentines could be purchased ready-made or senders could create original assemblages of materials available from a stationer’s shop. These items included paper lace, mirrors, bows, ribbons, seeds, sachets, gold and silver foil appliques, silk flowers, die-cut mottos or designs, and other items. Additionally, postal pricing reform recommended by Rowland Hill in 1837 and fully adopted in Britain in 1840 with the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post incentivized mass production of Valentines.

"A loving heart is a priceless treasure" Victorian Valentine Collection, Armstrong Browning Library

“A loving heart is a priceless treasure” Victorian Valentine Collection, Armstrong Browning Library

The growth of Valentine’s Day’s commercialization is clearly demonstrated in the increased sending of Valentines as tracked by the British Post Office. Its records indicate that up to 60,000 Valentines were sent in England in 1836. After the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post, 400,000 Valentines were posted throughout England in 1841. The numbers continued to climb, with 542,000 Valentines mailed within London in 1865 and nearly double that amount were sent into London from the surrounding countryside. These numbers led to Victorian postmen receiving a special allowance for refreshments to help them keep up their energy in the 2-3 days leading up to February 14th.

"Valentine's Day; 'Oh! Here's The Postman!'", The Illustrated London News, February 10th, 1872. From the British Library's Collections, Copyright British Newspaper Archive.

“Valentine’s Day; ‘Oh! Here’s The Postman!'”, The Illustrated London News, February 10th, 1872. From the British Library’s Collections, Copyright British Newspaper Archive.

If you are lamenting Valentine’s Day as a commercial racket, blame the Victorians. If you are looking forward to sharing tokens of affection with friends and loved ones, thank the Victorians. Either way here are some Victorian Valentines that you can download and print to share with those in your life expecting or deserving a Valentine’s Day expression of love:

A four page PDF with scans of Victorian Valentines from the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian Valentines Collection. Two pages are a classic layout of 9 cards to print and cut out. One page has 4 horizontal designs with a back and front that can be printed, cut, and folded in-half as a card. One page has two vertical designs with a back and front that can be printed, cut, and folded in-half as a card.

If you would prefer individual pages as a JPG file: classic layout page 1, classic layout page 2, horizontal designs, and vertical designs.

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