Do You Have Your Valentines Ready?

Valentine’s Day is only about a week away, and if you are stuck for inspiration, the Rosenbach has your solution! We are running our popular “Love Letters” hands-on tour on Friday 2/13 and Saturday 2/14 so you can get up close and personal with some fabulous sentiments. Or for some less exalted (but quite amusing) Valentine’s Day ideas you can turn to a “valentine writer.” This genre of chapbooks was popular from the late 18th century until the middle of the 19th century and provided pre-fab verses suitable for a variety of situations. We have a couple of these in our collection; my favorite is a ca. 1820 British example called The School of Love.

The School of Love. London, ca. 1820. El3 .A1sc The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

For the low price of  sixpence The School of Love, like many other valentine writers, offered verses suitable for different occupations; listed on the cover are trades and professions ranging from linen-draper to fish-monger to pastry cook. To give you a sense of the contents, I’ll start with one described as “from a bookseller,” which would be equally applicable coming from any lover of books.

From a bookseller

In vain I read what sages teach
Philosophy I cannot reach;
To read your charms is my delight,
An index of your mind so bright;
Consent to bind your fate with mine,
And I am blest, sweet valentine

Some of the verses have responses to go with them, such as this exchange between a blacksmith and his beloved:

From a blacksmith
Tho’ mine is but a noisy trade,
I am a quiet man, sweet maid;
Never prone to make a strife,
But fond of a domestic life.
At the forge I labour hard,
And money, love, is my reward.
Shall we then in marriage join,
Say, my pretty valentine
No, blacksmith, no, it will not do,
I’ve not the last regard for you,
No chains I’ll rivet , till I see
One with whom I can agree;
So your offer I decline,
Look out another valentine.

Other period books, such as Cupid’s Annual Charter, offer both positive and negative responses, but those in The School of Love seem to all be negative. A few of the verses are written from the female perspective, such as this one to a miller:

To a Miller
Whene’er I come unto the mill,
My beating heart will not lie still;
For love it has caused such a wound,
That like your sails my heart goes round;
To pity may your heart incline,
And take me for your valentine

It turns out that these valentine writers were very popular. The earliest examples were British, but they began appearing in America in the 1840s. According to Barry Shank’s book A Token of My Affections, in 1847 the New York valentine purveyor T.W. Strong offered retailers pre-packaged valentine merchandise containing from 14 to 40 valentine writers. In Consumer Rites, Leigh Eric Schmidt documents examples of valentine writers that have clearly seen use, such as a copy of Strong’s St Valentine’s Budget at the American Antiquarian Society which has check marks next to various verses, as well as notations for verses to be used for “Jack” and “Willie.”

In honor of my own cheese-loving Valentine, I’ll close with this wonderful verse “From a Cheese-Monger” (with a little design help from