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The Awe-Struck FLASH
Issue 17: February 10, 2002


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Love Tokens
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 forever.

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 see again.

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 them.

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, 2002.