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  • Writer's pictureAisha

Victorian Love Tokens

Hello darlings!


In honour of Valentine’s Day, I started looking into Victorian courting traditions which led to falling down a bit of a rabbit hole, to be honest. There were lots of lovely courting traditions during the Victorian period, but for this post I thought I’d take a look at what was referred to as ‘love tokens’.


What are love tokens?


Love tokens, in this context, are coins that have been smoothed down and engraved.


The love token society website is, understandably, very specific in their definition of a love token. It must have been a minted coin, legal tender, before it was altered, and the engraving must have been done by hand.


History


Love tokens could date back as far as the Roman period in Britain. From the 1500s, bent coins have been found which were thought to have been presented to lovers as a proposal for marriage.


If the woman kept it, then it meant the feelings were reciprocated. If not, the lover was spurned; and the amount of crooked coins found in the River Thames seems to suggest a lot of unrequited love.


In the Victorian era


The practice of giving love tokens was revivified in the 19th century. With overseas trade being such a big business, sailors would leave behind mementos in the form of love tokens for their sweethearts, as a reminder of their promise to return.

Love token depicting a lighthouse- meaning safe harbour.


Sailors would spend time on board the ship making things for their sweethearts on land, including things like love tokens or carved busks (for corsets).


Prisoners had much the same reasons; giving their lovers a token to remind them that they would return or, in the worst case, as a memento if they were to be executed. These were referred to as ‘leaden hearts’.


Before rings became an established tradition, love tokens could be given as an intention to marry.


There are a few reasons as to why love tokens in this form were so popular. Firstly, silver was easily engraved and relatively affordable. Secondly, photography was not widespread or affordable yet so a love token may be the only thing you have to remember your lover who has been at sea for years.


The size meant that you could easily hold the trinket in the palm of your hand while you wished for them to return, and you could also turn these coins into jewellery like brooches or necklaces so you could wear them every day, and keep your lover close to you.


In the mid 19th century there was a boom in popularity for love tokens. Young girls begged everyone that they could for one, so they could collect enough to make a chain for a necklace or bracelet.


Love tokens were turned into all manners of jewellery, including being attached to chatelaines. Even though the practice had never been exclusively reserved by courting couples, it now branched out even more so anyone who wished to could gift a love token to any friend or relative.


The most common engravings were initials and dates, pictorial depictions are more rare. Despite being called ‘love tokens’, hearts hardly ever feature. Flowers could be used symbolically, using the Victorian art of the language of flowers (I currently have a bid pending on eBay for a book on the language of flowers, so fingers crossed I get it and I can write a post about that!).


As they were engraved, however, sometimes it can be hard to tell the intention behind a certain flower choice. For example, a yellow carnation meant ‘rejection’ but a red one meant ‘longing for you’.


If ivy was depicted it meant ‘constancy’. Birds were also used, the bluebird being the bird representing happiness and lovebirds or turtle doves representations of mating for life.


Other common symbols could have been used, like horseshoes for good luck, or the lighthouse (that I mention earlier) meaning a safe harbour. They could have also depicted tools or instruments, as representations of a trade or certain talent.


Enamelling is even more rare. The coins could be enamelled in black for mourning, or blue for true love.


It is also unusual for a love token to be inset with gemstones, or ones that have been cut into shapes or have had shapes cut out of them.


By the 1890s, the love token craze had died down. Silver was seen as cheap in comparison to the new, fashionable material of gold. Photography was more widespread and that, in addition to the upsurge in the popularity of lockets, meant that it was a lot more likely that a woman would keep an actual photograph of her lover in a locket to wear close to her heart.


~


I just adore this tradition, don’t you? The thought of someone taking the time to engrave something personally and gift it to you is just such a romantic image, and something that’s been lost in the time of manufactured jewellery and outsourced engraving services.


If you want to find out more, please do check out the love token society website, it has a wealth of information (even if some of the photos are a bit dodgy!).


Until next time,

Aisha x


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