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Intellect

“Sentiment and Satire” celebrates Victorian valentines at BYU Harold B. Lee Library

Be mine. Tie the knot. Let’s kiss. True love. During this week of candy hearts and love notes, there’s nothing quite like getting a sweet-smelling card saturated with I love yous and Xs and Os.

But suppose, on Valentine’s Day, an anonymous love note reaches your mailbox, not a declaration of love, but a sarcastic note detailing all the traits that qualify you as the worst candidate for marriage. To add to the insult, you have to pay the postage.

Shocking as all this sounds, it was not uncommon in the Victorian Era. In the 19th century, valentines became intensely popular and ranged from the rude and slightly vulgar to the over-embellished and truly sentimental.

In 1969, the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University acquired a collection of original Victorian valentines that form the basis of a new exhibit, Sentiment and Satire,” now on display during the month of February in room 1130 of the library.

The exhibit is available Mondays through Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

“We have a really great collection of Victorian literature and culture,” said Maggie Gallup, curator of the Victorian valentine exhibit. “Most of the collection’s valentines date back to the 1840s and 1850s, and they’re actually pretty rude. Someone even tells someone else they’re a cheese monger.”

These rude and crude valentines were popular among the lower classes and were used as a way to mock the upper classes. Though they were mass-produced, each colorful valentine was probably the work of a hired woman or child.

“We know that whoever was publishing them had a team to paint them,” Gallup said. “If they painted them by printer they would have had to put it through the press every time they added a new color. It cost a lot to hire someone to press, so they probably had people just paint the valentines.”

As time went on, their popularity grew, and the Victorian valentines began to attract even the upper and middle classes. They would make fun of the rude valentines sent by the lower classes, and send them to one another with embellishments, such as lace, ribbons, dried flowers and metal mirrors.

The valentines reached the height of their popularity in the 1870s and 1880s. By that time, the decorations had gone far beyond ribbons and lace. Valentines were often made into fans or mechanical birds — and sometimes were even made out of real birds, according to Gallup.

But times and customs changed, and with the advent of World War I, the art of making these elaborate valentine cards slowly died.

“I think it’s kind of fun to see the things people were sending 150 years ago,” Gallup said. “We still send valentines now, but it’s interesting to see how much they’ve changed.”

For more information, contact Maggie Gallup at (801) 422-6276 or maggie_gallup@byu.edu.

Writer: David Luker

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