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.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. 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. 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):
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!