The Awe-Struck FLASH
Issue 17: February 10, 2002
HTML version available at http://www.awe-struck.net
by Lucy E. Zahnle
Love tokens in one form or another have been around since Roman times,
although the sentiment they represent has not always been romantic. During
the Roman feast of Lupercalia, a festival held in February in honor of
Juno Februata, the goddess of feverish, or in Latin, febris, love, men and
women drew lots to determine their romantic partners for the feast and for
the entire year to come. Even though they might have met as strangers,
during that one year, the partners spent as much time as possible with
each other and exchanged tokens and gifts.
Under the influences of Christianity, the festival eventually evolved from
one of a primarily erotic and, to the early Church, scandalous nature into
a celebration of the nobler aspects of love. In time, Lupercalia's name
was changed to St. Valentine's Day.
During the Middle Ages, starting somewhere around the twelfth century, a
knight fighting in tournaments might have received a favor from his lady
as a token of love. This token could be a ribbon, a neck chain braided
from the lady's hair, a belt, a ring, a banner, a veil or a the sleeve of
a dress complete with lappets at the cuff, also known as a maunch, which
the combatant attached to his helm.
However, the practice of granting love tokens was frowned upon by the
medieval aristocracy because it called the lady's honor and respectability
into question. In THE TREASURE OF CITY LADIES by Christine de Pisan, the
author went so far as to accuse knights and squires and all men of
pleading for love tokens from women and trying to seduce them.
Another medieval form of favor, known as largesse, was indicative of the
giver's respect and esteem rather than of romantic interest. Because
largesse was a token of friendship, the gender of the givers and
recipients was of little or no importance. A gift of largesse was usually
something practical like arms, armor, or horses, which the recipient might
not be able to provide for himself. Such patronage could be considered the
equivalent of corporate sponsorship today.
Love tokens were not only the province of the wealthy. From about the
fifteenth century, young men from the poorer classes in rustic and
maritime communities like the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Switzerland
combined the practical with the romantic, giving their ladies humble gifts
made precious by use of their time and talent. Out of shells, whalebone,
walrus ivory, and hardwoods like sycamore and boxwood, they carved
animals, costume figures, tableaus and other motifs into small household
items such as lace bobbins, combs, carved wooden stomachers known as stay
busks, feather bed smoothers, and marriage bowls. Occasionally a suitor
might even create an entire piece of carved furniture.
Sailors often presented their ladies with scrimshaw tokens, carving or
scratching the surfaces of pieces of ivory, seashells, bone or wood with
pictures and decorative motifs such as anchors, ships, fish and rope
knots. Hearts, lovebirds and flowers were popular with both the sailors
and the peasant suitors.
Dating back to at least the sixteenth century, the Welsh loving spoon was
perhaps the token most collected by young ladies looking for sweethearts.
A carved spoon was offered by a potential suitor to signal his desire or
intent to court, that is, to spoon, his ladylove. If a girl was popular in
her village, she might have several spoons hanging on her wall.
Although loving spoons were also found in England, Scandinavia,
Switzerland and other parts of Europe, they appear to have gained greatest
popularity in Wales, and by 1850 the Welsh were the acknowledged experts
in spoon carving. Although most of the surviving early examples are carved
from fruitwood, the carver probably used whatever wood was available. The
handle of the spoon was intricately carved and the bowl was usually shaped
like a heart to denote love.
The symbolism of the spoons derived from the way spoons nestle together,
touching in every part, suggesting the embracing closeness of both
physical love and mental affinity. The carvings on the spoons also had
meanings. For instance, an anchor meant a desire to settle down, a ship
meant a smooth passage through life, a dragon spoke of strength and
protection, and a knot indicated that the couple would be together
Still considered a sign of good luck today, Welsh loving spoons are
regaining popularity as love tokens. At the time of their wedding, actors
Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were presented with one by the
people of the bride's hometown of Swansea.
Popular in both America and Europe, coins were used extensively as love
tokens during the nineteenth century. Usually smaller denominations, the
coins were sanded down on one or both sides and engraved with intertwined
initials, names, dates important to the giver and recipient, sayings,
quotations, or personal sentiments and memories.
Coins were given not only to lovers and spouses, but to friends and family
members as well. When Victorian convicts were transported to Australia,
many of them used the time between their sentencing and their departure to
engrave coins to give as final mementos to their loved ones. The 1797
cartwheel penny was very popular for this purpose.
Inscriptions ranged from just a name and date to elaborate poems and
etchings of ships or shackled prisoners. Professional engravers were even
allowed to board the prison hulks so that convicts with money could
commission a last keepsake to bestow upon those dear ones they would never
Hebrews also engraved coins as love tokens, but they were intended to
denote the love and protection of God toward the bearer. They were usually
etched only with a large letter HEH, the initial for God, but occasionally
they were more complex with inscriptions using several names for a God,
angel names and biblical passages.
During the Victorian era, wealthy affianced gentlemen often gave their
ladies lockets. In return, a suitor might receive a bracelet decorated
with small locks, known as a curb bracelet. Because his betrothed held the
key to his heart, the bracelet was said to curb his interest in or
affection for other women. Young ladies also made watch papers designed to
keep the dust out of pocket watches for their beaux. These circles, cut
from pretty paper, silk or satin, were painted or embroidered with hearts,
the lovers' initials, or a saying or verse special to the couple.
Middle or lower class suitors might present their sweethearts with
handkerchiefs made of silk or some less illustrious fabric, depending upon
the giver's income. Embroidered with hearts, cupids, love knots or verses,
these handkerchiefs, often called bundle valentines, were used as purses.
Valentines are undoubtedly the most enduringly popular love tokens of all
time. They date back in some form to as early as the fifteenth century
when in 1415, Charles, Duke of Orleans, confined to the Tower of London
after the Battle of Agincourt, sent several love poems or valentines to
his wife in France.
For the next four hundred years, people made their own valentines. A
valentine could be as simple as a love note or poem or it could be
elaborately decorated. During the fifteenth century, one valentine
depicted Cupid hovering over a knight and a lady, his arrow about to
pierce the knight's heart. By the sixteenth century, St. Francis de Sales,
fearing that valentines would lead to immorality, was preaching against
By the eighteenth century, lovers were creating intricate valentines
featuring interlocking hearts, cupids and love knots cut out of colorful
paper. Verses authored by the giver were penned on the valentines, but if
the romantic muse failed a hopeful suitor, he could turn to booklets of
verse called valentine writers for inspiration and copy the appropriate
sentiment onto his valentine. One valentine writer booklet contained not
only valentine messages for the man to send, but answers with which the
woman could respond.
By 1800, hand painted and lavishly decorated valentines were being sold
commercially and were highly prized. However, people still made their own.
Two interesting homemade valentines from around 1840 were the Puzzik in
which the romantic message was written in a code that the recipient had to
solve and the Daguerreotype in which a tintype photograph was placed in
the center of the card and surrounded by a decorative wreath.
Some Victorian valentines were meant to be funny and would be politically
incorrect by today's standards. Printed on cheap paper in crude colors,
these valentines, known as vinegar valentines, made fun of old maids,
teachers, and others who were vulnerable.
Today people seem to be less sentimental. Fewer lovers give or receive
love tokens, perhaps because love moves too fast. Many people skip most of
the courtship rituals to leap straight into a sexual relationship, and
when they do that, they miss the chance to savor the steps of discovery
that lead to deeper commitment. Love tokens are a commemoration and
celebration of those delightful steps.
Lucy E. Zahnle announces the release of her romance novel, THE ROGUE'S
REVENGE. It will be available from Awe-Struck E-books on February 27,