Puzzle purses are just as charming today as they were 100 years ago.
flower pin on little girl's coat close up
Credit: Lennart Weibull

The season of love is in the air. Over the past few decades, Valentine's Day has largely become a consumer-driven holiday. Last year, Americans spent $20.7 billion in gifts for significant others and spouses, classmates and colleagues, and even their furry friends. And yet for all of the teddy bears, chocolates, and cards sent near and far, it's worth remembering that Valentine's Day originally commemorated St. Valentine who, centuries ago, was believed to have been the priest of Rome. After he was thrown in jail for unfair rulings on love, he began to write love letters to the jailer's daughter in which he would sign, "From your Valentine." From that moment on, he made his name a day to celebrate love for the ages.

As tradition holds, Valentine's Day should be sweet but not saccharine, and certainly not passé. And what better way than by resurrecting Valentine's traditions from centuries past? Here, we recall traditions from a bygone time. From Victorian crafts to handmade gifts, all of them are sure to ignite the spark on February 14.

Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve

As the old saying goes, "wear your heart on your sleeve." This comes from medieval times when knights would wear a token of love—often by tying a handkerchief in her "colors" around the arm of his sleeve, hence the saying. Today, it simply means showing emotion and affection towards someone in your life who you care deeply about. Try it by donning a pair of heart-shaped cufflinks, embroidered suit tie, or a fabric boutonnière.

Opening a Puzzle Purse

It represents a sweet little metaphor: Open your heart to love. Puzzle purses—popularized in the Victorian era—were a square sheet of decorative paper folded into a polygonal purse and delivered storing small tokens. As early as the 1700s, young lovers began exchanging puzzle purses as valentines. To construct them, the envelope-like packet was folded diagonally, then vertically, repeatedly into a grid of nine smaller squares, and then collapsed into a four-pointed pinwheel shape. By folding back the panels—one at a time, in sequential order—a message of "I love you" was revealed.

Sending a Handmade Card

Long before Hallmark and the greeting card industry overtook our mailboxes, a handmade card was something to be treasured as a small work of art. The introduction of the Penny Post in January, 1840, meant that the common man and woman could affordably send a card through the mail at the cost of a single penny. Victorians would pay a visit to the stationery store for their card-making supplies: elegant lace, quilled paper, ribbons and trimmings, etched dresdens of birds, butterflies, and flowers, and emissaries of love like winged angels. The personal messages often had a clever sense of humor.

Hosting a Holiday Dance

Holidays of every season were a big communal affair during the 20th century in towns across America. Like Halloween and Christmas, high-society people observed Valentine's Day by hosting private galas with feasting, amorous songs, and poetry competitions. One lucky couple would be crowned the King and Queen of the evening. Schools organized Valentine's Day programs for the children who would perform songs, skits, and plays. These celebrations—large and extravagant or small and intimate—would bring everyone together for a day of love, whether it be romantic or platonic.

Delivering Flowers of Meaning

At a certain point, our generation stopped delivering flowers and began to pay someone else to do it. This year, be thoughtful of the bouquet—and its flowers—being gifted to your special someone. The first flowers given on Valentine's Day weren't even the red roses that are most popular today. Rather, violets were the flower of choice. According to legend, it's believed that violets grew outside St. Valentine's jail cell and he would crush the blossoms into ink, which would be used to covertly write letters. Each flower and its color conveyed a secret message: ranunculus symbolized charm and radiance, daffodils were a sign of good luck and happiness, and violets were used to signify faithfulness or requited love.

Making Chocolate Boxes

Gift packages for candy and chocolate truffles were once made with great care. Richard Cadbury, the heir of the renowned British chocolate empire, is credited with creating the first heart-shaped box for the holiday. (Collectors note: Victorian-era Cadbury boxes are now priceless family heirlooms.) If you're making homemade treats, why not nestle them into a beautiful handmade box that's worthy of keeping forever?


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