The origins of St. Valentine's Day and the customs associated with it are very much contested, but the tradition of sending anonymous messages to loved ones on 14 February thrived in the 18th century and remains as popular today.
The earliest recognisable valentines were handmade from single sheets of paper, folded and then sealed with wax. They would then be hand-delivered by the sender, who would slip the valentine under the door or tie it to the door knocker.
Each example from this period is virtually unique as pre-made cards were unavailable at this time. Valentines were individually devised and handmade by the sender and usually feature true-love knots, rebuses, acrostics, puzzles and poetry. Creating valetines involved plenty of spare time as well as a degree of artistic ability and skill. It was fashionable for designs to display pin-prick work, hand embossing, cameos and colouring by hand.
Collected verses known as 'Valentine Writers' were published for use in handmade valentines, featuring poetry both sentimental and comic.
The Industrial Revolution saw rapid advances in printing and manufacturing techniques. Machines mass-produced a wide variety of fancy paper goods and the greetings card industry was born. Valentines from this period are engraved, woodcut and lithographed and hand-coloured. Valentines were left blank, so that the purchaser could add their own message.
Intricate etched and cut-out designs such as flower cage, beehive and cobweb decoration were more expensive and yet hugely popular. Paper lace valentines are highly decorative designs with beautifully embossed and cut-out borders. Highly collectable, the name of the manufacturer can sometimes be hidden amongst the lace design.
Comic valentines were hugely popular at this time and were meant to trick and amuse the recipient rather than to delight. Some comic valentines are designed to be witty and humorous, but mostly they were abusive and caused great offence.
Perfumer Eugene Rimmel was the leading name in perfumed sachet valentine production. His exquisite designs featured hidden messages printed on elegant silk pads that had been fragranced with perfume. Such designs were only for the rich, costing retailers between 6d and half a guinea each.
Kate Greenaway designed her first valentine for Marcus Ward & Co. in 1867. This went on to sell 25,000 copies in its first weeks of issue. She spent ten years designing greetings cards before going on to produce her famous and greatly revered books for children.
Valentines grew ever more elaborate and were overly decorated with items such as dried and waxed flowers, seaweed, shells, mirrors, ivory, ribbon, beads and fabric. Mechanical, multi-layered and three-dimensional valentines were growing ever larger and arguably less tasteful in design.
Examples of valentines from the 19th century can be found in the Library of Birmingham's collection of Victorian and Edwardian scrap books.