Tag Archives: vinegar

My Favourite Objects: Birdcage Valentine

More of a celebrator of Anna Howard Shaw Day than Valentine’s Day on 14 February, I never really spent much time down the card aisle hunting for the perfect valentine. That was until I took a journey through the valentines section of our archive.

Boxes and boxes full of Valentines

Boxes and boxes full of Valentines

We have nearly 1000 individual valentines in our collection spanning from the oldest in 1790 to ones as recent as 1996. As you can see in the picture above, they fill the shelves from floor to ceiling! One of the runner’s up for my favourite object was a Vinegar Valentine. You can’t help but be in shock by the rude (and downright nasty) nature of these. Just take a look at the following transformation card.


My favourite object is a much more humbling valentine of a birdcage from 1817. It doesn’t look like your traditional valentine with hearts and love sprawled across it, and from the picture below it doesn’t look like anything too special.

Birdcage valentine (OB1995.49)

Birdcage valentine (OB1995.49)

However, the image above really doesn’t do it any justice through! In the centre is a string to pull. We haven’t tried to open it for quite some time, so after a bit of a pep talk Curator Emma demonstrated how the card works for me and now with you!


Nearly 200 years old, this card is beautifully illustrated with the bird on the front and the two little mice on the inside. Way before laser cutting, the detailed cuts that form the cage were done by hand. Valentines sent during the 19th century, apart from Vinegar Valentines, were usually handmade mementos of affection – a lot of time was spent making these cards. This is why the Valentine Birdcage is my favourite object, because of its individual nature. It isn’t a generic card on the shelf but made specifically for the receiver. In other words, the admiration for the receiver is in the details NOT in the number of pink hearts.

What’s the best valentine you ever received or sent? We would love to see it!  Tweet us @postalheritage or send us an email at peoplespost@postalheritage.org.uk.

See even more valentines on our new online exhibition.

-Rachel Kasbohm, Digital Media Manager


Vinegar Valentines

Sending special letters for Valentine’s day probably dates from the mid-18th century. We have a number of examples of early Valentines in our collection. The idea of choosing a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day may be connected with the idea that 14 February is the date on which birds began mating.

A Valentine's day featuring an image of a bird.

A Valentine’s day featuring an image of a bird.

The name of the day has also been linked to a Christian martyr named Valentine who signed a letter to his jailer’s daughter, with whom he had fallen in love, “from your Valentine.” It was even believed in the eighteenth century that the festival had developed from the Roman Lupercalia (15 February), which celebrated the coming of spring and included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery.

A spiteful valentine from c.1814 sent to Thomas Williams Esq., No. 41 Berkley Sqaure. The last line of the verse reads 'if all men, were like thee - then, I'd sooner die than marry'.

A spiteful valentine from c.1814 sent to Thomas Williams Esq., No. 41 Berkley Sqaure. The last line of the verse reads ‘if all men, were like thee – then, I’d sooner die than marry’.

Not all valentines were declarations of love however. We have letters in BPMA’s collection complaining about the sending of insulting and rude Valentines and more particularly about having to pay for them. This is because prior to 1840 and the introduction of uniform penny postage, letters were paid for by the recipient rather than the sender. As such, on Valentine’s day some people with a particular grudge or spite against someone would, anonymously, send rude or grotesque valentines which the receiver would then have to pay for, really adding insult to injury. These have become colloquially known as spiteful or ‘vinegar valentines’. Complaints were made to postmasters requesting refunds for such vinegar valentines.

Poster showing the consequences of missorting, especially on Valentine's Day

Poster showing the consequences of missorting, especially on Valentine’s Day

As a variation of this, one of our acquisitions for the museum collection in the past year was a coloured print of a postman delivering letters on Valentine’s Day. Although of a much later date this print shows how the public didn’t always trust the Post Office to deliver their valentines in a prompt and appropriate manner, and postmen were certainly not viewed as potential valentines themselves.

A spiteful/vinegar/comic Valentine or Penny Dreadful.

A spiteful/vinegar/comic Valentine or Penny Dreadful.

We hope you all receive nicer Valentines than these!

Emma Harper, Curator