Happy Valentine’s Day, Beatrix Potter!

Cotsen 33205

From the collection of Doris Frohnsdorff. Cotsen 33205

Contained within the unassuming binding above lies a secret treasure trove of Victorian ephemera. Compiled between 1872 and 1878 by none other than Helen Leech Potter, Beatrix Potter’s mother, this quarto volume is an album of cards for Valentine’s Day and Christmas given to young Beatrix, beginning when she was six years old.  The cards are mostly from family (especially “Mama” and “Papa” and “Grandmama Leech”) and family friends like the Gaskells, Nurse MacKenzie, Dora Hollins, and a certain Mr Goul. Perhaps few artifacts remain that can rival the perfection with which this album documents the ornate and frilly taste of the late 19th century English middle class.

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Located at the head of the front free endpaper, this inscription indicates that the album itself was an 1872 Valentine’s gift for Beatrix (full name Helen Beatrix Potter) from her affectionate mother.

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Card at top of leaf [3]

Interestingly, the cards contain no hand written messages or signatures. Either notes accompanying the cards were discarded when the cards were pasted into the album or the sentiments printed on the cards themselves (which as you will see, can sometimes be quite lengthy) were deemed sufficient. Helen Potter diligently recorded the name of the gifter and the year the card was given, either inside the card or immediately below it.

Helen Potter's inscription inside the card shown above.

“From MacKenzie 1872”, Helen Potter’s inscription inside the card shown above. “Mackenzie” was Beatrix’s nurse.

Bottom of leaf [3]

Card at bottom of leaf [3], “From Mama 1872”

Leaf [4], "Grandmama Leech 1872", perhaps the biggest fan of paper lace.

Card on leaf [4], “Grandmama Leech 1872,” perhaps the biggest fan of embossed paper lace.

Inside of the card on leaf [4], perhaps a later original drawing by Beatrix Potter?

Inside of the card on leaf [4].

Leaf [6]. This leaf is one of many with sections or cards cut away, perhaps by Beatrix for a later project.

Leaf [6]. This leaf is one of many with sections or cards cut away, perhaps by Beatrix for a later project.

Card at top of leaf [6], unfortunately, we might never know "What makes a husband like a little dog".

Card at top of leaf [6] from “Aunt Mary 1873.”. Unfortunately, we won’t ever know “Why is a husband like a little dog?”

Leaf [7], "Mama 1873" at top and "MacKenzie 1873" at bottom

Leaf [7], “Mama 1873” at top and “MacKenzie 1873” at bottom.

The cards were printed by various English, German, and French sources, many unidentified. The majority, however, bear the recognizable imprint of the publisher Marcus Ward, a British company known for publishing illustrated books and mass producing greeting cards since the 1860’s. Marcus Ward’s Art Director, Thomas Crane, employed popular artists like Kate Greenaway and his son Walter Crane to design and illustrate the company’s greeting cards.

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Card on leaf [8], unattributed.

Card on Leaf [11], "Grandmama Leech 1874", perhaps in a bid to win Beatrix's affections. . .

Card on leaf [11], “Grandmama Leech 1874,” perhaps in a bid to win Beatrix’s affections? This is by far the largest card. . .

Card at top of leaf [13]

Card at top of leaf [13], “Papa 1874”.

Card at bottom of leaf [13], "Mr. Goul 1874".

Card at bottom of leaf [13], “Mr. Goul 1874”.

Card on leaf [14], "MacKenzie 1874", including a

Card on leaf [14], “MacKenzie 1874”, includes altered lines from William Wordsworth’s To the Daisy (1807) reading: “When smitten by the morning ray,/ I see thee rise, alert and gay;/ Then, cheerful flower, my spirits play/ With kindred gladness.”

Card on leaf [26], "Mr. McLaren 1876"

Card on leaf [26], “Mr. McLaren 1876”.

Card at top of leaf [28], "Dora Hollins 1878".

Card at top of leaf [28], “Dora Hollins 1878.”

Card at bottom of leaf [28], "Papa 1878"

Card at bottom of leaf [28], “Papa 1878”.

Card at top of leaf [29], "Bertram 1878", Walter Bertram Potter's first card to his older sister Beatrix., when he was 4 years old.

Card at top of leaf [29], “Bertram 1878”, Walter Bertram Potter’s first card to his older sister Beatrix, when he was 4 years old.

Card at bottom of leaf [29], "Papa".

Card at bottom of leaf [29], “Papa”.

Card on leaf [30], "From Mama 1878".

Card on leaf [30], “From Mama 1878”.

The last Valentine’s Day card in the album is the real coup de grâce. This unattributed card has it all: bright colors, frills, real lace ties, printed flowers, an intricate daisy border, and inside, a sickeningly sentimental segment of poetry taken from Thomas Hood’s I love Thee! (also unattributed):

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Card at top of leaf [40]

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Though Valentine’s Day cards have changed a lot in style since the Victorians shared them with friends and family, we have them to thank for the perfecting the mass production of cards and promoting their distribution.

If you still haven’t gotten a card for your sweetie, I hope you can draw some inspiration here for a last-minute tribute.

Happy Valentine’s Day from Cotsen and Beatrix Potter!

 

1 thought on “Happy Valentine’s Day, Beatrix Potter!

  1. I thought this post was beautiful. How lovely to receive valentine cards from your family too.

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