Saturday, 15 February 2014

I Trove you, my Valentine

It's St Valentine's Day!* The perfect day to talk about love. But where to start?

Valentine card 1860s - 1880s, Creative Commons via Wikimedia. Details:;_valentine_card_-_Google_Art_Project_%28540150%29.jpg
A light-hearted post about Valentines in the past seems like a good idea. So I've been looking at Trove Australia, the National Library of Australia's wonderful searchable database of historical newspapers and much more.

1825 Valentine poem, from Trove Australia:
I wondered when the earliest mention of a Valentine was published in an Australian newspaper. It turned out to be on Friday 18 February 1825, four days late, and it's not a very cheerful message.

The poem, in the Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser, states that

It calls itself a Valentine,
But call it what you will.

It goes on:

With me thy love's a wither'd joy,
And vain thy beauty now!

And the ex-lover finishes:

And friendship take the place of love,
To send a Valentine.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't be thrilled to get a poem about withered joy and vain beauty.

And I'm not convinced that it's a very friendly message, either.

But then again, this wasn't a Valentine sent to anyone in particular, just (it seems) an editorial whim.

In those days Valentine cards were hugely popular, it seems, looking at the tongue-in-cheek reports in the Aussie newspapers.

The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser of Friday 15 February 1839 says: 

Sydney Monitor report about Valentine card deliveries, 15.2.1839
Yesterday being Valentine's Day, the Sydney lads and lasses were interchanging "hearts and darts, and true lover's knots," from daylight to dark.

I'm guessing that the people who got the Valentines still had to pay the postie tuppence, since the prepaid, stamped (that's where the word comes from) sheets which were introduced the year before might not have been as well received as romantic cards. It must have cost the popular 'Sydney lads and lasses' quite a bit.

On Saturday 9 February 1867, the Australasian writes a long 'Ladies' Column' about Valentine cards in Melbourne:

Once again the day approaches when custom sanctions style and manner of epistolary communication between the sexes which, at any other period of the year, would scarcely be tolerated. Our stationers' windows teem with specimens, of orthodox applicability to every conceivable case of love-sickness, from the incipient flutter of dawning preference to that over-head-and-heels condition into which the wisest of men and women-are prone to tumble.

The article's too long to reproduce in this post, but you can see it all here.

1976 Valentine small ads, Canberra Times
Valentine messages in the personal columns of newspapers didn't start until 1976, when the Canberra Times published a modest How Sweet It Is A Valentine Greeting section among its other small ads on 14 February. There's a typical message, pet names and all: 

SWEETIE all my love as always, today and forever. Chicken.

(Cute!) And a more, um, unusual one:
SHAME Lizzie is not for borrowing. Slim. Hmm.

When was the last Valentine message printed in the Aussie small ads? I wondered. It was 1995, in the Canberra Times, which seems to have had a monopoly on them.

By this date it took me a while to weed out all the adverts for Valentine's gifts (and, ahem, an 'adult' shop), but there's a half-page of messages of love.

Some of them are very moving, like one from Clare to Stephen: "I love you. Your eternal love, best friend, and wife forever."

Some are funny: "Gomez - keep the slab cold for me. Morticia."

There are plenty of pet names - Huckles, Honey Bear, Grunt, Snort ands Snuggle Bunny.

But how to pick the 'last ever' Valentine in the newspapers? I've gone for the one in the picture. It's near the end, it mentions being someone's Valentine, and it's lovely.

I wonder why Valentine messages in newspapers stopped after 1995. It's not as if people had Facebook, Twitter, Google+, text messages and so on like we have now. Maybe they just didn't bring in enough money to the paper? What do you think?

The Farmer's Valentine, South Australian Weekly Chronicle,19.5.1866
To finish my Trove Valentines, here's an unusual one. Unusual not just because of the words, but because of when it was published - on Saturday 19 May 1866.

Here it is, from the South Australian Weekly Chronicle, and you can find his sweetheart's answer to the farmer printed underneath if you click on the link.

What do you think she said?

Well, a wooing with milking cows, swine, pudding, beef and up-the-chimney bacon - who could resist?

I searched Trove for 'Valentine', which brought up a lot of first names and surnames, so I searched for 'my Valentine'. You can see a QueryPic graph (a wonderful tool developed by Tim Sherratt of WraggeLabs) showing the number or proportion of mentions here. 'My Valentine' peaks in 1918.

Then I searched for 'Valentine's Day' and based this post on the results of this search and the one for 'my Valentine'. Here's a comparison of 'My Valentine' and 'Valentines Day' (QueryPic doesn't allow apostrophes). The number of uses of both phrases dropped during both World Wars, though they both had all-time peaks in 1918.

I then searched for some phrases I thought people might use: 'I love you', 'my darling' and 'my love'. On the QueryPic you'll see a big peak at the time of the First World War, which is an interesting contrast with the use of 'Valentine'. Perhaps the day mattered less, during those terrible times, than the message. The data for the Second World War are much less clear.

Valentine card, Creative Commons - details here:;_valentine_card_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

* I was all set to post this on the 14th, my usual day. Then - oh no! My laptop went loopy. So it's a day late - sorry!

For images of vintage Valentines, try History of the Valentine and Wikimedia Commons.


  1. An inventive choice of topic for your posting day. I enjoyed reading about your methodology and the valentines themselves were beautiful..

    1. Thank you, Sue! The research was fun. Those of us who do Australian research are so lucky to have Trove. It's very flexible.

      It would be interesting to do a comparison with the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) but I haven't got a subscription to the BNA or FMP. Maybe another blogger could look at US newspapers?

  2. What a wonderful loving post. Enjoyed it! Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Carol! I had great fun (and some frustrations) working on it. I found some of the Valentine messages very moving.

  3. I enjoyed this post. Great topic and interesting way to present Valentines day...

    1. Thanks, Yvette. It's one of the great things about this blog that it frees us to think of genealogy/family history/history topics which go beyond our usual focus, I think. And that was a liberating experience. And fun!

  4. Great post, loved the way you have used Trove to put it together! Such pretty cards!

    1. Thanks, Diane. Those cards are lovely, aren't they>

  5. Great idea. I have never thought of that. Thanks for sharing.

  6. So Cute, I totally love Vintage. Great Finds. 1839! Very Sweet for Valentine's Day.

    1. Thanks, True! I bet we're all into vintage here. They're adorable, aren't they?

  7. Trove is fabulous! I wish I had more Australian ancestors.

    1. I think a lot of people would love it if they could use Trove to help find their ancestors, Schalene, it's just brilliant, I agree. My non-Aussie lot are harder to pin down.

  8. An innovative approach to the February post Frances. No wonder their badge says "I heart Trove". It offers us so many ways to reveal past history, not just of our own ancestors' hidden stories, but the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.


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