The winter holiday of Valentine’s Day honors the Roman Goddess of Marriage, Juno and the Christian martyr, St. Valentine. Persecuted by the Roman Emperor in 273 AD, St. Valentine enjoys a legacy that has been carried on by lovers, young and old, for centuries. Children and adults annually honor St. Valentine by gifting flowers, sharing symbols of love and sending romantic cards to loved ones. While St. Valentine presented the flowers from his garden to young lovers in an effort to promote the Catholic sacrament of matrimony, the February holiday that bears his name has sparked the exchange of various works of art and antiques.
In the late 19th Century, the Victorians brought the ideals of courtship and fidelity to the forefront of society. They introduced young lovers and their guardians to one of the most unfortunate objects in the history of the decorative arts: the courting lamp. Resembling a typical oil lamp of the day, the courting lamp was enhanced with graduated markings on the glass to indicate minutes. The marks showed the amount of time left before the fuel source expired. While rare, these lamps appear at local flea markets with asking prices into the $100 to $150 range. Of course, the reasoning behind such a lamp was to keep track of two un-chaperoned lovers. As the fuel burned out and time grew short, the lovers would be warned of the impending darkness. When the fuel was gone and the light was extinguished, the young male suitor had better be on his way home! Like the lamps, furniture was also made in an effort to control the wilds of a young heart. Victorian love seats had two sections presented in an elegant S-shape curved form. This allowed a couple to sit together but not too closely. As antiques reflect society, the love seat exemplifies the Victorian interest in a controlled courtship.
While 21st Century women may not like this next Victorian tradition, Valentine’s Day was also a time to show one’s love by giving gifts that were useful in the kitchen. I guess the way to someone’s heart is really via the stomach. The Victorians said “I love you” with gifts of decorative rolling pins, pie plates and china.
From Heart to Hair
Although the Valentine card remains the most recognizable of the lover’s offerings, Victorian gifts from the heart — and the head — are the most desirable.
Victorian women saved their hair in a small ceramic bowl with a hole in its top called a hair receiver. Antique hair receivers are worth about $30 to $50 and are available at yard sales and flea markets. The hair crafts made from all of this saved hair are hard to find. After accumulating a good amount of locks, the hair would be used to make a hair picture or bracelet. These hair crafts were the result of years of saving actual human hair.
Intricately woven hair crafts became love gifts from 1850 to 1910. Hair jewelry was used for sentimental remembrances and as gifts to loved ones. On Valentine’s Day, women believed that giving their beloved a hair bracelet or hair watch fob would serve as a love charm and ensure a long and happy relationship.
Blonde or Brunette?
One of the most popular and beloved antiques is the coveted hair picture. Accompanied by an inscription, hair pictures are mementos. One of the most common Victorian Valentines featured the symbolic rose or forget-me-not flowers made from hair locks of one’s beloved.
With values in the $500 to $800 range, framed hair pictures grew from love signs to memorials. Images made of hair related to the lover’s lifestyle, occupation, or hobbies and also included landscapes featuring family homesteads, anchors to symbolize a marine, or still lifes of fruits or flowers symbolizing the bounty of love and long life.
Happy Valentine’s Day.