Three Love Tokens for Valentine’s Day

Puzzle Purse Love Token, c. 1790 (British Postal Museum and Archive)
Puzzle Purse Love Token, c. 1790 (British Postal Museum and Archive)

Valentine’s Day is less than a week away, so I’ve been thinking about how ladies and gentleman of Jane Austen’s era made use of their accomplishments to celebrate the day.  It was already an old custom to exchange love-tokens both amorous and friendly in this period.  Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, mentions giving and receiving Valentine’s gifts.  The oldest known printed Valentine’s card dates to 1797, almost 50 years before printed Christmas cards!   Annual “Valentine Writer” pamphlets were published in the late 18th and early 19th century to supply would-be lovers with appropriate poetry. So many of our holiday card- and gift-giving traditions date to the Victorian period, it’s nice to know that Valentine’s Day was celebrated by Jane Austen’s contemporaries as well.

You may already be familiar with folded paper “Puzzle Purses.” There have been instructions and examples available on the web for years, and the 2009 movie “Bright Star” made them popular for a while outside the world of history bloggers (See links at the bottom of this post). Although not all of the extant puzzle purses can be linked to Valentine’s Day, many are unequivocally love tokens. I’d like to look at three examples in museum collections that date from the time period I’m studying. All three use hand-written poetry and painted designs as part of their messages of love. Later in the week I’ll share my own take on the Puzzle Purse love token. [UPDATE: See my recreated puzzle purses here!]

1. British Postal Museum and Archive, c. 1790

The top image shows this puzzle purse token in its folded state. The verse on the outside edges around the large red heart reads:

My Dear the heart which you behold
Will break when you the same unfold
Even so my heart with love sick pain
Sure wounded is and breaks in twain

On the other side of the folded paper, the maker of this token promises,  “In this inside sweet Turtle Dove/ I’ve wrote a moral of my love. . .”   But to read further, one must unfold the flaps, “breaking” the central heart but also laying bare its secrets: more verses and hearts!

Interior of the Puzzle Purse Love Token c. 1790, (British Postal Museum and Archive).

The verses at the edges of the page are coordinated with the drawings:

‘My dearest dear and blest divine
I’ve pictured here thy heart and mine
But Cupid with his fatal dart
hath deeply wounded my poor heart
And has betwixt us set a cross
Which makes me lament my loss
But now I hope when this is gone
That our two hearts will join in one.’

The heart at the top of the page is pierced with an arrow, cupid’s “fatal dart”, while the two large V shapes on left and right form an X or “cross” when the paper is partially folded. The heart at the bottom can be read as two hearts in one, a blue one and a red one.

There is yet more poetry written in the center. You can read a full transcription of the verses at the British Postal Museum and Archive catalogue entry for this item. All these valentines are overflowing with text! The lovers who made them seem to have been compelled to make the most of this opportunity to declare their feelings. Or perhaps the tokens that were most eloquent and convincing were the ones most often saved by the recipient? With ephemera like this, it’s impossible to say.

2. Free Library of Philadelphia, c. 1800

The pictures of this example show a little more clearly the layers of text and image of these folded ‘puzzles’.  The front flaps are worn enough to make the verses difficult to make out, but they are definitely different from the first example.

PhilFreeLibFront copy
Folded Puzzle Purse Valentine, c. 1800, Free Library of Philadelphia. (I reconstructed this image from a picture of the unfolded object)

The quadrants of the large central heart are numbered  to make sure that the verses on the next layer are revealed and read in the correct order. When that heart is “broken,” the next layer revealed looks like a pinwheel.

Partially unfolded Puzzle Purse love token c. 1800, Free Library of Philadelphia
Partially unfolded Puzzle Purse Valentine c. 1800, Free Library of Philadelphia

The verses on the edges of the triangular flaps are very similar to the middle set of verses in the previous example:

My Dearest Dear and blest divine
I’ve pictur’d here your heart and mine.
But Cupid with his Cruel dart
Has deeply pierc’d my tender heart
And has between us set A Cross
Which makes me to lament my loss
But I’m in hopes when that is gone
That both our hearts will be in one

However, the drawings match the verses in quite different ways, using paired hearts: the first pair of hearts are set side by side (“your heart and mine”), the second pair include one pierced by cupid’s “cruel dart”, the third is separated by a cross, and the fourth are linked “in one”.

When the puzzle is completely unfolded, one more surprise awaits- a handful of verses and a painting of a posy of flowers (now damaged).

Unfolded Puzzle Purse Valentine c. 1800, Free Library of Philadelphia.

The verses in this central panel are also numbered to make sure they are read in the correct order. They finally let us know that this token was a Valentine’s Day gift:

My heart is true to none but you
My heart I hope you will pursue
The roses and the lillies twine
Since you became my Valentine.

Round is my ring and has no end So is my love unto my friend

This last verse, placed in the compass-drawn circle around the flowers, has a parallel in another paper love token dated 1816.  Like the puns and rhymes printed on modern day valentines (BEE mine) and scribbled in kids’ notes and yearbooks (2 cute + 2 B = 4gotten), these little love poems must have been used and re-used over and over again.

3. American Folk Art Museum, 1799

Love Token for Sarah Newlin, 1799. American Folk Art Museum.

This token includes the name of the recipient, Sarah Newlin, and the date 1799, but no indication of the sender (or if it was made for Valentine’s Day!).  The museum doesn’t have photos of this same purse unfolded, but they do have a separate catalogue entry for an “envelope” for Sarah Newlin’s love token. This envelope appears to have been folded the same way as the puzzle purse itself, and I think I can see the shadow of a large heart just like on the love token itself, but I can’t tell whether it is the sign of a heart painted on the reverse of that sheet, or a stain caused by the token that the envelope was wrapped around for many years. So, I’m not sure whether these are two images of the same object, two items that were folded together, or two separate love tokens that have been passed down together. In any case, there isn’t enough information to compare the interiors of this/these puzzle purses with the other examples. But the folded exterior is interesting in itself.  The familiar large red heart dominates the folded specimen, and the verse on the edges is also familiar:

My dear this heart that you behold,
Will break when you these leaves unfold,
So my poor heart with love’s sick pain,
Sore wounded is and breaks in twain.

The wording is ever so slightly different from the verses on the first example from the British Postal Museum.  It’s so striking that the British example shares such close similarities with two American puzzle purses. The puzzle format and the verses obviously work well together, and were re-used and re-combined over and over again. Was there a printed source that spread the fad for puzzle purse valentines from Britain to the former colonies? Or was this a folk tradition that passed from person to person, picking up variations in wording and drawing as it was transmitted? I’ll be keeping my eye open for more evidence, and making my own puzzle purses too!

Historical Valentine Links:

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