For many centuries Valentine's Day was celebrated as a time when tokens of love could be exchanged. But, the tradition became truly popular during the Victorian era when, due to improvements in printing techniques, and the introduction of a postal service, commercially printed cards were sent instead of hand-written sheets of verse. Some of these cards were very elaborate with paper embossed and cut like lace ~ with decorative items like mirrors and feathers ~ and sometimes even strands of the hair plucked from the head of the sender.

As well as being romantic, many cards had a humorous bent as well. Some could even be cruelly malicious, so much so that in the 1850's the New York Times was to publish the following editorial -

Our beaux and belles are satisfied with a few miserable lines, neatly written upon fine paper, or else they purchase a printed Valentine with verses ready made, some of which are costly, and many of which are cheap and indecent. In any case, whether decent or indecent, they only please the silly and give the vicious an opportunity to develop their propensities, and place them, anonymously, before the comparatively virtuous. The custom with us has no useful feature, and the sooner it is abolished the better.

Such words of advice were all in vain, as depicted by this 1900 film that the British Film Institute digitised: The Old Maid's Valentine ...

But, back in the 1850's, one particularly attractive young lady by the name of Catherine Worsley (the daughter of Sir William Worsley of Hovingham in England), was more than happy to receive billet doux from hopeful lovers.  

Catherine saved a great many tokens of love of which 22 illustrated letters, some poems, sonnets and stories, and sketches with scenes of marital bliss, are all still preserved to view today at the North Yorkshire County Records office.

One of her ardent admirers wrote: 'I'll gratify your slightest wish, whether t'were small or great, say the word at once you're heard, my pretty, pretty Kate.' 

Another said: 'I'm ugly I know, but I'll presently show, that I really am not to be sneezed at.' 

But the one who received Catherine's heart in return was her cousin, George Allanson Cayley, who married his love in 1859 after urging that she should, 'keep your kisses all for me.'

Catherine Worsley's valentines were unearthed by Katie Robinson, a Record Assistant at the North Yorkshire County Office who'd been carrying out some research for the BBC TV programme, Who Do You Think You Are?


  1. Oh, I love it!
    Here in the dreary mid west of the USA where spring is shoving the snow of winter off the roofs.
    We have 'Who do you think you are'.
    It relates to ancestors. Does yours?
    I haunt history, and seem to be happiest in the 1800's.
    Continuing thanks for your blog.

  2. Thank you! It is strange how the 1800's can suck you in and seem so much more accessible to our own way of thinking - I wonder it is because of photographs, making the people who lived then seem more real and 'like us', or the fact that the literature of that era is still so widely read, and of course, televised and filmed.

    We have our own UK version of 'Who do you think you are?', but I recently saw an US one with Susan Sarandon - absolutely fascinating to know her Italian roots and what a hard time her family had when they came to live in America.