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:

Capital, capital!*

Detail of "Formation of the Capitals", plate in John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.
Detail of “Formation of the Capitals”, plate in John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.

Lately, I’ve been practicing English Roundhand capitals with my quill pens. After a long time working with lower case letters, it’s fun to let loose a little and swoosh around the page!  John Jenkins, the American writing master, gives a whole new set of “principal strokes” for forming the capital letters, and you can see how much more room for swooping there is compared to the lower case strokes.

Like the lower case letters, Jenkins groups most of the capitals together by shape. For example, P, R, and B all begin with a downward “Body stroke” that curves gracefully back up to the top so that the pen is ready to form the head of each letter.

-Formation of the Capitals, John Jenkins The Art of Writing, 1813.
“Formation of the Capitals” plates 1 and 2, John Jenkins The Art of Writing, 1813.

The system breaks down a bit, though, in trying to get all the capital letters onto two plates.  Somehow O is missing entirely, and there are two versions of the letter V. One, at the bottom right of the image above, is just a lower case v enlarged, while the other is a pointy letter like N, M, and W.

"Formation of the Capitals" plates 3 and 4, John Jenkins, the Art of Writing, 1813.
“Formation of the Capitals” plates 3 and 4, John Jenkins, the Art of Writing, 1813.

Although I find all the curvy strokes really fun to play with, they also make it more difficult to get the letter forms just right.  With so many compound curves and so few parallel angles, it’s hard to get them all arranged proportionally.  Most of the letters are designed to be made in just a few connected strokes, so one is expected to make all those complex curves without lifting  the pen from the page! For a few of the letters I actually traced my models to get the feel for them in my hands and to see what they looked like on my paper.  Getting the size of the flourishy curves at the beginning and ending of the letters right is a challenge, too- too small and they look cramped, but a little too big, and they draw attention away from the important strokes of the letter.

Ugh, it's a start anyway.
Ugh, it’s a start anyway.

For comparison, the capitals from the 1787 edition of George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant have a few stylistic differences but are mostly similar. If Bickham were grouping letters though, he’d put P and R with D rather than with B. Interesting! I think I prefer these more droopy initial flourishes on letters like I and J- they don’t  run the risk of looking like the cross stroke of the T:

Capitals from plate 9b of George Bickham, The Young Clerk's Assistant (1787 edition).
Capitals from plate 9b of George Bickham, The Young Clerk’s Assistant (1787 edition).

*Since I’m a huge fan of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series, whenever I look at the titles of John Jenkin’s plates, all I can think of is Sir William Lucas:




Abandon Every Sin: A Pinterest Orphan

I love how Pinterest helps me stumble on great images, but I hate how often they are orphaned of sources and attribution. Tumblr (and frankly, the rest of the internet) has similar problems, but Pinterest almost seems to encourage the bare, context-less image.  My personal policy is to always link to the original source (which in the case of Regency and Georgian art and artifacts is often a museum or auctioneer website) or to a Wikimedia Commons page which includes information about the piece.  Sometimes when I come across a really great orphan image I turn detective to find its source, and in the case of this sheet of penmanship practice I’m really glad I did!

As you know, I’m obsessed with 18th and early 19th century handwriting. I’ve looked at engraved and printed copybooks, cut my own quill pens, and followed advice on how to practice my letters.  But material evidence of how real learners practiced their penmanship is rare- the pages they covered with first shaky attempts are much more ephemeral even than personal letters of the period. So imagine my delight when the above image came across my Pinterest feed. At the top, a writing master has written a model phrase with an elegant slant, delicate hairlines, and bold straight strokes.  Below, the learner has done his best to copy the phrase, but struggled to recreate the elegance of the model. I can relate! Nonetheless, the learner proudly signed his name to the page- twice!  Where did this gem come from? The pin as I came across it merely said “Uploaded by User.” Sigh.

Rescuing Pinterest Orphans

Google’s ‘Search by Image’ feature is a lifesaver in these situations.  If you’re very lucky, it will turn up (in addition to many redundant Pinterest links) a page that is evidently the original source for the image- like a blog post containing photographs snapped by the blogger.  More often, you’ll come across pages that aren’t the original source, but may include more information to help you locate it. Unfortunately, most museum collection websites aren’t indexed by Google, so if you learn that a painting or print is in a particular museum you will need to search the museum’s own collection database. More and more large museums are making high-quality digital images of their collections available on their websites, but even small private collections will often make public images of some of their highlights.  Every museum has different policies about using their images, but there is a strong case for faithful reproductions of public domain works being considered in the public domain themselves.  This gives impetus to the Google Art Project and the Wikimedia Commons, which aim to make high-quality digital images of public domain artworks available freely. Although many of these images may be free to use and share in a lot of online contexts, they should be used responsibly, and for me that means sharing the context and source as well.

In the case of “Abandon Every Sin” I was pretty lucky.  My image search led quickly to an online teacher’s guide hosted at Villanova University’s Falvey Library that included this image. The page linked to the Library’s digital collections, where I could view full page scans of the entire manuscript book that this page is a part of!  Armed with this information, I filled in a description when I added the pin to one of my Pinterest boards. Then I edited the pin to add a link to the online guide as the ‘Source’, so my followers would be able to click through to read more. Here’s the pin on my “Handwriting and Typography” board, an orphan no more.

The teacher’s guide, prepared to help introduce students to primary source research, discusses the book and the historical figures who were involved in its making. It’s a fascinating story!  The main part of the book was a journal kept by Patrick Hayes, a 17-year old Irish-American boy who accompanied his uncle, Commodore of the American revolutionary navy John Barry, on a voyage to China in 1787. Michael Hayes  apparently commandeered the diary to use the extra pages for handwriting practice sometime later. In addition to “Abandon every Sin,” his writing teacher had him practice the phrase “Be not hasty to judg” [sic].  For some reason Michael and his teacher did not write out phrases starting with C, D or the rest of the alphabet in this book. Such models were easy to find- George Bickham’s copy book includes a list of “Moral Maxims Alphabetically digested for the Practice of Youth in the Round-hand.”

“Be not hasty to judg” Michael Hayes’ penmanship practice, page 65 of Patrick Hayes’ journal (Image Source)

Michael really made the book his own- on a blank page at the beginning of his journal, Patrick had written a title page: “Patrick Hays his book,  January the 19 1787, Patrick Hayes, Wrote abreast of Java Head.” (image below) Michael appears to have added two lines below that, copying his brother’s writing and adding his own name! Strikingly, these additions are attributed to Patrick’s older brother Michael.  If that attribution is correct (that is, it wasn’t a Michael Hayes of a later generation who made these marks),  Michael was learning elegant penmanship later in life than his brother did, and was imitating his younger brother’s style on that title page.  According to the teacher’s guide, the Hayes brothers had grown up poor in Ireland, and only joined their uncle in the young United States after their parents’ deaths. Was Patrick the prodigy of the family, using letters and writing to better himself like Benjamin Franklin had in the previous generation? Did Michael work more menial jobs in Ireland, only gaining the opportunity to refine his hand later in life?  What was Michael thinking as he inserted himself into his own brother’s title page? Was he jealous of the younger man’s early success or dreaming of his own meteoric rise, now that he’s learned the essential accomplishment of penmanship?


Patrick Hayes His Book, page 2 of Patrick Hayes’ journal (Image Source)

I can’t answer all these questions with Patrick and Michael Hayes’s book, but I am so delighted that investigating this pinterest orphan led me to learn about their family, and to identify this page as the work of an adult learner of elegant roundhand writing. Whatever his story, I can relate to every shaky stroke of his pen as I learn elegant penmanship as an adult.


In Search of a Good Hand

John Jenkins, American Writing Master (with student doodle!)
John Jenkins, American Writing Master (with student doodle!)

The first Accomplishment I want to acquire is writing- an authentic regency writing hand.  After all,  The Polite Lady warns me “But it is not only an useful it is likewise a polite qualification; nor should any one pretend to the character of an accomplished woman who cannot write a distinct and legible hand.”

The handwriting I’ve seen in Jane Austen’s letters and manuscripts, as well as that of her contemporaries, is not always distinct or legible. But each letter usually slants exactly the same way, and there are enough commonalities among very different people that they must have been trained to follow similar models.  How can I find those models? A book titled Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge (There was a stiff competition for ‘Best Companion’, it seems, based on the number of books that use some variation of this title) tells me to carefully copy good examples of handwriting, and that:

In selecting examples for imitation, engraved specimens are to be preferred to written : for the engraver working deliberately and mechanically with his tools, and re touching the plate until his work be to his satisfaction, is able to produce letters, words, and lines, much more regular and uniform in shape and proportion than any which, unless the writer be singularly accomplished indeed, can be executed by the hand and pen.

This seems like good advice, but how am I going to find the right engraved specimens? What do I search for, since my period sources do’t give me specific names? I had heard of “Copperplate” and “Spencerian” handwriting styles, but they belong to the later 19th century. To achieve their graceful thick-and-thin lines, calligraphers use flexible steel nibs that only replaced quill pens in the 1830s or so. I discovered that what is now called English Roundhand, an ancestor of Copperplate handwriting developed in the 17th century, was popular through the early 19th century. It also accords well with my sources, which often mention a “round” hand in contrast to “running” or “Italic” hands.

As for engraved specimens, George Bickham‘s name comes up again and again. In The Universal Penman, he collected fine examples from the best  English writing masters and published them as engraved plates. More relevant to my needs is his slim volume The Young Clerk’s Assistant; or Penmanship made easy, instructive, and Entertaining, first published in 1733. Google Books has a full text of a 1787 edition, It contains examples of round and other hands, and LOTS of “moral maxims” to practice copying.  The title may sound rather masculine, but there are poems and epigrams specifically aimed at young ladies as well as young gentlemen.

 Unfortunately, Google Books’ scan is too washed out to be a good model- it doesn’t capture the fine hairlines that are an essential part of the letter forms. I acquired Dover’s reprint of the 1733 edition, only to find that it doesn’t include my favorite plates titled “To learn round Hand without a Master”, which had large letters both separately and joined. They instructs me to “Write each article on this and the following page forty times over in a Copy-Book ruled with double lines.” Here they are from that washed out scan of the 1787 edition (Click to see a larger):

Bickham-p8 Bickham-p9

Since The Young Man’s Best Companion told me to practice writing each character large and carefully, I felt I needed to look further for models.  I found it in John Jenkins’ Art of Writing, an American manual from 1813. The International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH) hosts high-quality scans of some hard to find writing manuals, and Jenkins’ book is the earliest they have. The paper it’s printed on is russet with age, but the hairlines stand out clearly! I de-colored and cleaned up a few of the plates that show the basic strokes and the small letters:

Jenkins Plates 1Jenkins Plates 2

John Jenkins is a big believer in teaching through “dialogue,” by which he means memorized questions and answers about the theory and practice of writing. I don’t find that very helpful, but I do like his method of presenting the basic pen strokes that form all the letters. The hardest elements for me to get right are the slope of the letters and the delicate hairline curve at the top and bottom of many lines, and his basic strokes emphasize learning those skills.  A close comparison of his letterforms with Bickham’s shows that they are not identical, but they are definitely in the same family.

Jenkins also has the ladies in mind in his volume, as this elegant page shows:

“If you would win a Pen of Gold Learn first of all your Pen to hold” To Write with ease & Elegance / is a most Useful, Polite and / Necessary Accomplishment / For all Young / Gentlemen and Ladies. / By diligence and care Your Writing will be fair
“If you would win a Pen of Gold Learn first of all your Pen to hold”
To Write with ease & Elegance / is a most Useful, Polite and / Necessary Accomplishment / For all Young / Gentlemen and Ladies. / By diligence and care Your Writing will be fair