From the archives: Valentine's day traditions

Valentine’s Day card to Margaret Beale

Whilst delving into the archives at Standen, we discovered this Valentine card which had been sent to Margaret Beale (1847-1936) by her parents, Algernon Sydney (1813-1907) and Sarah Field (1814-1900). Affectionately known as ‘Markie’, she was the eldest of five children. This card was probably sent in the late 1850s around the time that Margaret started boarding school.

" We wish you dear Markie a very Happy Valentines day and hope you will be a very good girl while you are at Uncle Ferdinand’s and that you will give everybody as little trouble as possible and will enjoy your visit very much. It has been very cold with us the last 2 days and it has been snowing again and the Sheep and Cows can’t find any grass to eat, and if they were not fed with hay they would die. We meant to go sliding today but it snows so fast we cannot go out until it gets finer. This comes from us three who your true Valentines be. The biggest sends you his love and hope you will always be a good and happy Girl. The middle one sends you 4 loves and 3 kisses – and the little wee one sends you 3 loves and 2 kisses. Guess who we are if you can."
- Valentine’s Day card to Margaret Beale

Visiting Uncle Ferdinand

This particular February, Margaret was staying with her father’s older brother, Uncle Ferdinand Emans Field (1810-1885) and his wife Ellen (1829-1909) at Elm Cottage, their home in Evesham in Worcestershire. It is possible that Margaret’s parents were away on holiday, although it is likely that she was just visiting her Uncle and Aunt who were married in 1859.

Ferdinand Field and his younger brother Alfred (1814-1884) were in business together as hardware merchants, trading in America and Britain until 1854. In retirement, Ferdinand was an amateur gardener and author, publishing The Greenhouse as a Winter Garden in 1870 with the help of his friend, William Cullen Bryant, an influential American romantic poet and journalist (1). Uncle Ferdinand’s book addressed ‘to amateurs managing their own greenhouses’ (2) was possibly one of the sources of inspiration for Margaret’s later love of gardening at Standen.

Text from a Valentine’s Day card to Margaret Beale
Text from a Valentine’s Day card to Margaret Beale
Text from a Valentine’s Day card to Margaret Beale

Paper lace and coded messages

The sending of Valentine’s cards on 14 February has its beginnings as a saint’s day; apparently two St. Valentines of the third-century were both executed on this day. It seems that early associations between St Valentine and mating birds were made by Chaucer, an idea which evolved into the practice of giving gifts, not just between adult couples but also within a wider social circle amongst family and friends (3). Although the earliest surviving Valentine cards date from fifteenth century, the trend for sending Valentines on 14 February really gained pace in the nineteenth century, mainly encouraged by availability of cheap paper and better printing techniques (4).  

Margaret Beale’s Valentine card incorporates paper lace, a technique discovered in 1834 by Joseph Addenbrooke while working for a company called Dobbs. Clearly designed to appeal to women, the card’s frilly sentimentality hides coded, gendered messages. The coloured illustration on the front page features an idyllic, romantic scene of a young couple; the gentleman presents his sweetheart with a gift, possibly a ring at the gate of the church, an image which anticipates a happy future.

Margaret Beale's Valentine's Day card

Inside the card, besides news and affection, the message from Margaret’s parents stresses the importance of behaving well, encouraging her to ‘be a verygood girl’. This type of card, especially those which included a message from parents or family, would have reinforced ideas of respectable feminine and masculine behaviour and proper social conduct in the minds of impressionable, young girls like Margaret Beale. However, it was not all serious stuff; Margaret would have enjoyed wondering about the card’s playful secret: Is the young woman in the picture going to say yes? Who knows?

Referenced in this article:

  1. William Cullen Bryant, The Letters of William Cullen Bryant: 1872-1878, Fordham University Press, 1992, p.155-156 
  2. Review of Books: F.E. Field, ‘The Greenhouse as a Winter Garden’, Gardeners Chronicle & New Horticulturist, October 22 1870, p.1414.
  3. Annebella Pollen, "‘The Valentine has fallen upon evil days’: Mocking Victorian valentines and the ambivalent laughter of the carnivalesque." Early Popular Visual Culture 12.2 (2014): pp.127-173.
  4. Sarah Beattie, Victorian Valentines, 13 February 2014, V & A blog, see