Many people may have spent $50 or more on their Valentine today. But how many would shell out that much for a card with a dead bird on it? In 1860s London, a decorative box with an intricately designed, three-dimensional valentine inside could cost half a guinea ($50 in 2013) with no aphrodisiacs, champagne, or chocolate in sight. The Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute holds an amazing and extensive, but little-seen collection of early Valentines. Its star may well be one of these very expensive three-dimensional items. This little white satin pillow is studded with artificial flowers (feather fronds, sprays of wax baby's breath, acorns, and pink cloth rosebuds), surrounded with perforated printed lace in white edged with gray, and topped with . . . a real taxidermied hummingbird!
While some stuffed-bird valentines from this period have seen better days, and look roughly like something the cat dragged in, this particular specimen was given to the museum relatively early by an Illinois resident in 1937. It was evidently kept free of moisture until then in a box—which, if not necessarily original, afforded it plenty of protective clearance—and so the hummingbird retains its glossy blue, green, and brownish red feathers in their initially sleek, careful arrangement. Its eyes were replaced with beads in the stuffing process, and so lack a little life, but not surprisingly so considering how delicate the task of preparation and preservation must have been for such a small creature. A colorful printed label at the bottom of the pillow (showing musical instruments and even more flowers) marks the concoction as "A tribute of my Love." Unfortunately, there are no other inscriptions that might give us a clue as to the 19th-century giver or recipient. The care with which the object was maintained, however, suggests the gift was happily received!
Birds, particularly lovebirds, have been tied to romantic love and the selection of a mate as far back as the poetry of the 13th century. Hummingbirds were native only to the Americas, but found immediate appeal overseas once the New World served as a viable trading ground, and the tiny birds became part of costuming and even hairstyles, as well as ostentatious gifts. However, by the 1890s, this style would become not only outdated, but even offensive to certain members of the public, especially those engaged in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in England or in various Audubon Societies in the United States. The painter George Frederick Watts created his Sorrowing Angel around 1899 to aid an anti-plumage campaign, which he inscribed with the words: "A Dedication to all who love the beautiful and mourn over the senseless and cruel destruction of bird life and beauty." Reproduced several times, and quite poignantly in the case of the Art Institute mezzotint with white chalk heightening, this image shows an angel weeping over the bodies of several birds crushed on an altar with a relief design denoting the pure evil of those who would mindlessly buy or sell these bright feathers.
So, this Valentine's day, consider the full historical significance of the iconography of the birds and the bees, including the comedic bird-themed valentine, whether angry, lovey-dovey, or sophomoric (Owl be Yours?). If your Valentine disappoints, appreciate the fact that their gifts are at least taxidermy-free.
British, possibly Jonathan King (active 1845-1869), Hummingbird Valentine, 1845/69, 1937.1118
Sir Frank Short, after George Frederick Watts, The Sorrowing Angel, 1901, 1991.622.