The art of writing a love letter is perhaps something that has been lost in today’s digital age. These days, access to instant modes of communication such as text messages, emails and video calls has made it much easier to stay connected with one another, even over long distances. The craft of committing emotions to paper may, therefore, seem alien to many. However, one of the latest additions to the collection here at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery reflects a time where this simply was not the case.
The handwritten love letter pictured above dates back to the nineteenth century and was sent to a young lady who was living in Sheffield. The vibrant ink drawing depicts a man and woman, arm in arm, taking a walk in the countryside on what looks to be a beautiful summer’s day. We know that the letter has connections to the village of Peak Forest in Derbyshire. It was donated to the museum by a lady whose family had held onto their old greetings cards and passed them down through the generations. Perhaps the love-struck author sent the letter to his lover as she returned to Sheffield after visiting him in Peak Forest? Could the church in the drawing be the chapel of St Charles King and Martyr, before its rebuild in 1876-77? Whatever this couple’s story might have been, the contents of the letter makes it clear that they were very fond of one another. It reads:
‘Should jealous rivals ever seek
To win thy faith from me
Oh let remembrance fondly speak
Of all I’ve vowed to thee
Think on the eyes that ever gaze
With truth and love on thine
The voice that wearies not in praise
Of thee my Valentine’
The use of rhyme in this playful poem was very typical of the time and the style is evocative of the popular ‘roses are red, violets are blue…’ nursery rhyme that can be traced back to 1784. Despite digital communication overtaking handwritten correspondence in the modern world, humorous rhyme is a feature that continues to be associated with the more commercial, pre-printed Valentine’s cards we have today. The sending of Valentine’s cards is a tradition has been traced back as far as the fifteenth century, when the 14th of February became an annual feast day in France. It is at this time that the earliest surviving Valentine’s letter is believed to have been sent, from the Duke of Orleans to his wife, whilst he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after the 1415 Battle of Agincourt.
Through the ages, the designs of these cards changed constantly as new styles and formats came in and out of fashion. The nineteenth century in particular saw a mass popularisation of greetings cards, as the introduction of the postal stamp made the process of sending mail much easier. Many of the styles that were on trend during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be seen in an album of Valentine’s cards held here at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. The creative designs ranged from simple greetings telegrams (pictured above) to much more flamboyant cards.
Printing companies incorporated different shapes, materials and colours to create eye-catching pieces that would stand out and entice customers to buy them. From laced edges and ornate illustrations to embossed text and fabric detailing, the industry moved further and further away from the origins of handcrafted letters.
The market for these cards today has expanded greatly and it is estimated that over 25 million cards are sent for Valentine’s day each year. For many people this is one of the few occasions in the year when they will send handwritten correspondence to one another, arguably making the receipt of these cards all the more special.
At a first glance, the Peak Forest love letter gives us an insight into the romantic relationship of just one young couple from the nineteenth century. However, upon further investigation it also serves to remind us of how a very personal form of communication has developed through time to give us the greetings card industry we have today.