Happy Valentine’s Day: A Scrapbook Made by Helen Potter for her Daughter Beatrix

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.


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.


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.


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):


Card at top of leaf [40]


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!


Rosamund’s Dilemma: A Purple Jar or A Pair of Shoes?

Celebrated children’s book author and novelist Maria Edgeworth is the young lady with the long curls and pretty hat at the left of Adam Buck’s famous group portrait of Richard Edgeworth and nine of his twenty-two children.

Maria Edgeworth’s most famous (or infamous) short story  is “The Purple Jar,” the first in the series of the Rosamund stories, which began appearing in The Parent’s Assistant (1796).   Why has this story overshadowed the series showing how a lively seven-year-old girl developed into an intelligent,thoughtful, and engaging young woman?  Possibly because so many readers have been somewhat taken aback by the behavior of  Rosamund’s mother on the shopping trip in London.  During an awkward moment with her daughter, she might have exercised her authority gently to avoid an unpleasant outcome, but instead she chose to treat it as a teachable moment and let things take their course.

Rosamund might have seen a display something like this when she went to the apothecary shop with her mother. Plate 6 from General Knowledge made Easy, or the Child’s First Step to Mechanics, Mineralogy, Agriculture, Sculpture… (London: D. Carvalho, ca. 1830) Cotsen 26558.

When Rosamund and her mother visit the apothecary’s shop, the little girl is captivated by a jar she wrongly assumes to be made of  deep purple glass.  She begs her mother to buy it for her, but her mother sensibly explains why she will not.   When it is clear that Rosamund is unlikely to change her mind, her mother gives her the choice of the jar or a new pair of shoes, but not both.  After some more thought, Rosamund decides she will take the jar. When the precious jar is delivered to the house, Rosamund discovers almost immediately that the luscious color comes from the nasty-smelling liquid it contains.  Once the liquid has been poured out,  an ordinary clear glass container remains.  Her mother holds her to her decision and will neither return the jar nor purchase the new shoes for another four weeks.

Of course Rosamund should not have ignored the evidence from her senses that her shoes were completely worn out.  Stones were getting in through the tattered soles, which made walking even a short distance rather painful.  But her lively imagination presented such a glorious image of that purple jar filled with flowers on the mantel that she ignored her mother’s suggestion to inspect the jar, just in case it was not what it seemed.  Possession of the jar, Rosamund convinced herself, would bring her a  degree of happiness that no pair of shoes could.

Rosamund’s second fatal mistake is the more intriguing of the two because it involved a different kind of intelligence.  Like a fairy, her mother promised to grant her one wish and one wish only.   Rosamund should have realized (maybe) that she was in exactly same situation as a heroine in a fairy tale and o course, no fairy is not obliged to sit down and review the pros and cons of a wish on offer. Another reason why Rosamund should have been more cautious before she leapt.  By choosing the purple jar instead of the shoes, she ended up with the equivalent of a sausage hanging where her nose should be, just like the silly wife in  Charles’ Perrault’s “The Three Wishes,” but without the luxury of one more wish to put things to rights again.

Be careful what you wish for–you might get a sausage that is two yards long attached to your face… French popular print of Charles Perrault, “Les souhaits ridicules” [The ridicious wishes.”

What Rosamund realizes during her month of stumbling around in down-at-the-heel shoes, is how difficult it is to anticipate where you will need to go.  Her shoes were so disgraceful that her father left her at home while the rest of the family visited a glass house, a sight she very much wanted to see.    No shoes, no outing.    Rosamund’s journey in “The Purple Jar” was not as long as Dorothy’s on the Yellow Brick Road, but it was no less arduous for having taken place inside of her head, being the first step on the road to maturity.  While Rosamund wanted to be a sensible, intelligent and independent person, she also sensed that it would be good to hold on to the capacity for magical thinking that got her in trouble in the first place: “Oh mamma, how I wish that I had chosen the shoes–they would have been of so much more use to me than that jar: however, I am sure–no not quite sure, but I hope, I shall be wiser another time.”

A pair of girl’s shoes ca. 1790 in the collection of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The soles are not very thick, so it’s easy to imagine that they would wear thin with use. Once they got well-worn and stretched out, they look as if they would fall off the feet very easily, there being no straps.

“The Purple Jar” looks like nothing more than a realistic story in easy language for young children.   Yet the way Edgeworth skillfully weaves fairy tale elements into an everyday incident underscores its importance in her life.   It implies that there is no learning without curiosity, imagination, or chance of making mistakes.

A artfully arranged collection of colored glass can be dazzling, so Rosamund can be forgiven for being seduced by the display in the apothecary shop…

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mitzi Myers, who loved and understood Rosamund perhaps better than anyone except Edgeworth herself.