Earlier in the week I got into the Valentine’s Day spirit by examining museum images of three folded paper “Puzzle Purse” Valentines from c. 1790 – 1800. I felt moved to put my accomplishments to use and reproduce two of them. It was a lot of fun, and I learned more about the museum examples in the process!
First, the simpler valentine, modelled on an example in the British Postal Museum. Since the pictures of the original show only the finished, fully folded form and the unfolded sheet, I was especially interested to see what this valentine looked like in the intermediate stages of unfolding.
It was really nice to see how the two hearts and the x-shaped “cross” described in the poem came together, since the museum images don’t show them folded together. Unfolding them breaks the cross and reveals the four linked hearts at the center. The original has several verses of earnest love poetry in the center as well. You can read all of it in transcription at the museum’s site if you wish- it’s full of romantic sentiment and foresees that “pale Death must be my fatal friend” if the recipient of this valentine doesn’t agree to marry the sender! I decided to include only two slightly less feverish couplets in my version.
The inscriptions in these valentines are my first attempt at translating what I’ve learned about English Round-hand into an every-day “running hand” like most people used to write their letters and diaries. My practice to date has been a ‘copy-book’ hand of the kind taught by writing masters and used for more formal documents. Rather than trying to imitate the handwriting of the original valentines, I tried to loosen up my copy-book hand and write it more quickly, to achieve a cursive hand that maintained traces of the lessons of the writing-masters. I need to practice more, especially since I found it easy to lose the slant I’ve tried so hard to cultivate. Most handwriting I’ve seen of this period has a very consistent slant, as if that habit was deeply ingrained from childhood lessons.
Next, I made a copy of a valentine in the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. In the process, I came to appreciate how elaborate and detailed this example is. The original is truly a work of art.
The front edges of the original Valentine are so worn that it’s hard to read the verses that surround the heart, so I substituted the verses that seem to be traditional for Puzzle Purses. Specifically, I used the wording from another American puzzle purse, Sarah Newlin’s love token in the American Folk Art Museum. So in a sense this is a composite reproduction, but I used the design features of the Free Library example throughout.
As I worked on this project, I kept coming back to the pictures of the original and finding new details I hadn’t noticed. Puzzle purses have space for three layers of decoration: 1) the outside when fully folded, usually decorated with a large heart; 2) The “pinwheel” formed when the flaps decorated with the large heart are unfolded; and 3) the central area of the sheet that’s exposed when the pinwheel is unfolded. This puzzle purse fills all three layers with distinctive decoration and poetry, but no part of the unfolded sheet of paper has decoration on both sides. It’s organized very carefully and cleverly.
It was only as I began to decorate the pinwheel parts that I realized that each of the four ‘fins’ has a different floral design. The pairs of hearts are all surrounded by a multitude of tiny dots- I had to sharpen my quill to a pin-point to imitate them. I think I see traces of pencil lines under the red paint of those identical hearts on the original, so I decided they were probably traced from a paper template. That certainly helped me get every heart the same size and shape.
I love the innermost layer of this valentine- the verses and the squared circle layout are such a nice little secret hidden inside the puzzle. Much of the central circle in the original has been damaged – it seems that the iron-gall ink and the green pigment used for leaves both corroded the paper. I used creative licence to fill in the circle with more flowers and squiggles like the ones remaining, but originally it could have looked very different.
It was as I was writing the verses in the square that I realized that this valentine was probably made by a woman! Both the other examples I looked at were almost certainly made by men for women. The British Postal Museum example describes the recipient as a “girl,” “maid” and “loving bride to be,” while the Folk Art Museum love token names the recipient, Sarah Newlin. The verses on the Free Library valentine aren’t so overt: “My heart is true to none but you /My heart I hope you will pursue.” In the promise to be true, the writer takes on a relationship-role considered feminine in this time period, and hopes that the recipient will pursue her, a more masculine role. I can’t be certain, nonetheless it makes this reproduction valentine an especially appropriate gift for me to give to my husband this Valentine’s day.
Project Notes: Materials and Tools
(See the links at the bottom of my previous Valentine post for instructions and templates)
I used a thin laid-textured artist’s paper made by Strathmore. It comes in 25 inch x 19 inch sheets, and I cut it down to get two 12.5 inch square sheets for folding puzzle purses. The museum examples range from about 12.5 inches to 14 inches square. A folded purse measures one third of the unfolded sheet along each dimension, so my versions are about 4 1/6 inches when fully folded.
If you’re making your own puzzle purses, I recommend choosing a thin, tough paper that will take well to folding. I tried using some nice watercolor paper at first, and it proved too thick to fold comfortably and cracked along all the folds. If you want to make modern puzzle purses, thin scrapbooking paper is ideal since it’s already 12 inches square!
I used a quill pen cut to a fine point for writing all the verses. For the straight lines, I used my ebony straight-edge and a different kind of dip pen- a ruling pen. Although mine has a black plastic handle, the ruling pen has a long history and is frequently seen in 18th century sets of drawing tools. As its name suggests, it’s designed for use with a ruler to make smooth, straight ink lines. For the central circles in one of the valentines, I used a ruling pen attachment for my compass. Again, my tool is modern, but the technology is old. My mechanical pencil is all modern, however! The bone folder is used to crease the folds crisply.
The paper heart cut-outs are templates that I drew around to make sure all my hearts were the same size. Above them is my dish of iron-gall ink. Since I used this traditional ink, the valentines I made are likely to become corroded along the ink lines just like the originals, given enough time!
I used modern watercolors for all the painted details. Only red, yellow, and blue are required – I chose Rose madder, Gamboge, and Indigo colors to try to match the originals, but my paints are imitations and don’t contain those natural historical pigments (I have much more to say on that topic later).
Happy Valentine’s Day!