The seat of love and learning

This Victorian Valentine wears its heart on its sleeve.
This Victorian Valentine wears its heart on its sleeve.

Written by Heather Elvidge

As Valentine’s Day approaches we’re supposed to buy tokens of love – flowers, chocolates, jewellery and dubious items of 
apparel. Did 
lovers fare better in times gone by?

Instead of florist’s roses, the beau of yesteryear would present a posy of wild blooms; in a mild February he’d find primroses and violets. Or he might save up to buy a modest brooch, or a delicate handkerchief.

Generally, giving clothing was seen as far too intimate. A pair of gloves was a safer option, although in wealthier circles silk stockings were considered a respectable gift.

There were no ready-made sentiments. Valentine’s greetings were hand-written letters, sometimes with an illustration drawn by the anonymous sender. Stationers caught on in the 1840s, producing cards printed with a set message and trimmed with lace.

Gifts and cards carried symbols of love. A chain - hardly romantic to our eyes - implied, “together forever”. A ship suggested setting out on life’s voyage; an anchor, settling down. A key was the key to heart or home. And the most enduring image of all was the entwined hearts.


The heart was a potent symbol in almost all cultures. Christian art used the bleeding heart to depict Christ’s sorrows, while the flaming heart represented charity.

Phrases and proverbs could fill this page. We still use some of them: a heart-to-heart talk; her heart’s in the right place; his heart was in his mouth (or in his boots); take heart; learn by heart; to set one’s heart on; with all my heart. We take things to heart, and wear our heart on our sleeve.

As well as representing love, something heart-shaped could act as a charm. The heart was believed to avert storms at sea, particularly ones caused by evil influence, so wives made their seafaring husbands a small, heart-shaped pincushion complete with pins. Few sailors in the Royal Navy were without a heart tattoo.

Because they were fashioned from metal, pins had a certain innate power. When dropped in a well as an offering, a pin would ensure that a wish was granted.

They could also play a part in counter-spells.

When people or livestock were the victim of the evil eye, one antidote was to stick pins into a real heart - usually from a pigeon or calf - and then boil it or place it in the chimney. The aim was to cause pain to their persecutor, to make them lift the spell.

The centre of our being, both physical and spiritual, was always the heart. It was said to be the home of the divine spark, and the better feelings that were the counterpart of reason, which resided in the head.

We still think of the heart as the seat of love and feeling, because we can all feel our heart responding to strong emotions.

Hearts radiate warmth, feel full to bursting with pride or love: or hurt so much, it feels as though a chunk has been torn out. We feel heartache when love goes wrong, and real heartbreak when a loved one dies.

Traditional Valentine cards say, “I give you my heart.” It’s the ultimate statement of trust. What more is there to say?