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Book of the Month

February 2002

Valentines & Dabbities  

Glasgow: 1850s?

Sp. Coll. Bh11-b.19-20 

To mark the celebration of St. Valentine's Day on February 14th, this month's book choice is a two volume collection of valentines and other ephemeral items dating from the mid nineteenth-century.

volume 1: My pleasant grocer
Mustard and spice, and all things nice,
And tea leaves mixed with sloe, Sir,
Sugar and sand must be very grand,
But I'll never marry a Grocer.

Like so many of our feasts and festivities, the origins of our present day custom of lovers' swapping gifts and cards on February 14th are obscure. One explanation is the belief that birds pair up on this date, but the connection with love more probably dates back to the Roman feast of Lupercalia when - among other rituals - the names of young women were put in a box and drawn out by the men in a game of love lottery. This celebration originally occurred in mid February and was seemingly adapted by the early Christian church and given the association with St. Valentine in an attempt to eradicate pagan superstition. The matter is confused by there originally being two Saint Valentines; both were early Christian martyrs with no particularly romantic characteristics. 

Despite the efforts of the early Christian church, the rituals of choosing sweethearts and giving love tokens on February 14th persisted. The practice of exchanging hand-made cards began in the 1400s, and by the seventeenth century was popular enough to warrant their production by printers. These included verses and sketches and may be said to be the first of all printed greetings cards. By the 1840s a variety of such cards were being produced mechanically in large numbers. The improvement of postal services and the introduction of the penny post during Victoria's reign helped to establish the custom of sending anonymous cards and letters to the secretly admired. Cards were sent not only to one special valentine, but often to a wider circle of friends and relations.

While most cards carried a sentimental message of love, comical valentines also became common by the mid nineteenth century. These cards took the form of single sheet of paper with a caricature of a man or woman accompanied by a few lines of uncomplimentary verse. Such caustic productions are sometimes referred to as 'vinegar' valentines or 'penny dreadfuls'. The valentines bound in our volumes are nearly all of this kind. Various trades and professions are satirised, each character being cruelly derided as unworthy of receiving love; many are depicted as drunkards with swollen noses. Satirical valentines were apparently popular with the lower classes and therefore may be described as being examples of  'street literature'. As such, their study can give us an insight into Victorian popular culture.

There are some 150 valentines bound up in our volumes. They are each printed on one side only of a sheet of cheap paper and are, for the most part, shoddily produced. Some were obviously published in numbered sets. The blacksmith shown to the right, for example, is numbered twenty and belongs to a set incorporating black borders bearing titles at the top; later examples from this sequence retain the border but lack any titles. Other examples in the volumes (such as the old maid and printer shown below) are printed without borders: these are occasionally still numbered but may not necessarily be productions from the same press.

volume 1: My lovely blacksmith
Blow, bellows, blow, the flames are high,
And my bold Smith has a flame in his eye;
Poor silly fool, he may go to pot,
If he cannot strike while the iron is hot.

volume 1: Old Maid
Old and ugly, mean and stupid,
What a chance are you for Cupid!
Die when you may, this truth I tell,
Old  Beelzebub will toll the bell.
Tho' men have long o'erlook'd your charms,
You'll fill old Satan's glowing arms.

Each valentine takes the form of a black and white lithograph illustration accompanied by a  letterpress verse. Lithography is a primarily commercial form of printing and it was favoured by jobbing printers in the nineteenth century. The images here have all been enlivened by the addition of watercolours by hand. As is only to be expected in such cheap productions, this colouration has been added in a somewhat quick, crude and slapdash manner. However, it does give each item a sense of uniqueness, for examination of duplicated examples reveals that in each case, different colours have been applied. 

volume 1: Old Maid 2

volume 1: Printer
You set of a printer, your nose is too red,
Your legs are defective as well as your head;
All your enjoyments are drawn  from the pot;
You're ragged, you're lazy, you're a poor drunken sot.
At Births, deaths, and Marriages you're up to a trick,
And, though not on the tramp, you have always a stick.

Since none of the valentines bear either publication details or dates, it is not certain who was responsible for producing them. The only clue lies in the binding of the volumes which are both stamped 'Valentines and Dabbities ... Glasgow 1850'. It is certainly very possible that the valentines were produced by a Glasgow press. While the Trades Directory of 1790 lists only eight printing houses and sixteen booksellers in the city, the numbers involved in the book and printing trade grew dramatically throughout the nineteenth century until by 1890 there were approximately 300 letterpress printers, 119 publishers, 132 booksellers and 111 bookbinders working in Glasgow. During this period, prominent printers of jobbing work and ephemera such as this in Glasgow included the firms of James Lumsden & Son, Francis Orr & Sons, Archibald Lang, John Muir, W. & R. Inglis, Thomas Duncan, William Carse, James Lindsay and Robert McIntosh. Many of these were rivals who produced similar material, much of which was shamelessly plagiarised. Conversely, there was also some co-operative publication of cheap books under the name of the 'Glasgow booksellers' . As well as producing a miscellaneous range of printed products of every description - including, for example, picture-books, song sheets, circulars, invoices, tickets, business cards, fancy cards, large posting bills, and pamphlets - some  printers diversified further: the firm of the 'Poet's Box' (managed by Matthew Leitch and his son William Leitch from 1849-1875), for instance, published all the usual items but in addition offered to produce poems and other pieces of writing upon request.  
Firms producing ephemeral items such as these valentines were to be found in most major towns and cities. Designed to be short lived and usually produced for a specific event or activity, printing ephemera was a quick and easy way of making profit for most provincial presses. The nineteenth century was the heyday for such publications thanks both to the rapid increase in literacy and the availability of new iron frame presses capable of producing hundreds of sheets per hour. Cheap literature was published specifically for the lower classes of society, the poor and the semi-literate. Small booklets known as 'chapbooks' were popular: these cost about a penny and were so called after the pedlars or hawkers known as 'chapmen' who travelled from place to place and sold the booklets along with other small household items such as ribbons, threads and needles; in towns, these items would be sold on the streets or at gatherings such as fairs. These small books had a varied subject matter including popular tales, accounts of marvels, fairy tales, religion, executions and fortune telling. Broadsides - those items printed on one side only on a single sheet of paper - were similarly popular: these were found in both prose and verse and their contents ranged from ballads and songs to accounts of the latest lurid events such as executions and shipwrecks. Such material is increasingly regarded as indispensable to the researches of social, political and economic historians.  As Rickards has said: 'Ephemera represents the other half of history: the half without guile. When people put up monuments or published official war histories they had a constant eye on their audience and their history would be adjusted to suit, whereas ephemera was never expected to survive - it would normally have been thrown straight away - so that it contains all sorts of human qualities which would otherwise be edited out'.

volume 1: Fish wife
Roaring, tearing, swearing, blustering,
Vicious, vain, and flustering.
Thy looks turn crude the sweetest balm,
Discord thy music, rage thy calm.
Vixen, at once I do decline
To choose thee for my Valentine.

volume 2:  Valentine with flap
I send you this, a simple token,
A truthful likeness unto you,

As well as the straightforward valentines, there are also three examples of more playful cards involving flaps which reveal caricatures when lifted. Still satirical in nature, the card here is of a far superior workmanship than previous examples; it incorporates a delicately embossed border which gives a lacework effect reminiscent of the beautifully wrought cards  so popular by the end of the Victorian era.  

volume 2: Valentine with flap
Turnips you know are good with mutton,
Accept my friend, this tribute true.

volume 2: Dabbity

A few miscellaneous ephemeral items are also bound in at the end of the second volume. As well as some broadside ballads, there are a series of 'dabbities'. Although a dabbity would now be understood to be a transfer, it would seem that the word was originally used to describe a kind of lottery book hawked around the streets of Glasgow. According to a work on the publications of James Lumsden (a known producer of 'dabbities'), passers by would be enticed for a small charge to wield a pin and   'Dab, dab, dab at the picture book, yin in every four leaves and four for the prize'. 

volume 2: Detail of dabbity

These two volumes are from the Wylie collection. Amassed by Robert Wylie, chairman of the Glasgow firm of furnishers, Wylie & Lochhead, and a founder member of the Glasgow Bibliographical Society, the collection consists of almost 1,000 volumes relating to the history and topography of Glasgow and its environs from the eighteenth century to the early 1900s. Included is a substantial amount of ephemeral material, including chapbooks, broadsides, playbills, and advertisements.

Other examples of nineteenth century valentines: Valentines lithographed and printed by Hugh Wilson Glasgow: c.1845-48 Sp Coll Mu25-b.33; Valentine cards c.1865-1871 Eph P/259-261.

Other examples of dabbities: A collection of dabbities, seals, transfers, scraps, etc. Glasgow: published by James Lumsden & Son Sp Coll Bh12-e.11

More generally, there is an extensive collection of ephemera in Special Collections: see, for example, the descriptions for broadsides and chapbooks, and also digitised examples of broadside ballads, and hanging ballads. 

The following works have proved to be useful in writing this article: Adam McNaughtan 'A century of saltmarket literature, 1790-1890' in Six Centuries of the Provincial book trade in Britain Winchester: St. Paul's Bibliographies, 1990 GUL Bibliog B114 1990-S2;  Chris E. Makepeace Ephemera: a book on its collection, conservation and use Aldershot: Gower, 1985 GUL Bibliog A112 1985-M (Rickards quoted on p.2); S. Roscoe and R.A. Brimmell James Lumsden and Son of Glasgow: their juvenile books and chapbooks Pinner: Private Libraries Association, 1981 GUL Bibliog D6-L4 1981-R.


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Julie Gardham February 2002