Antique Tokens of Love & Friendship
by Peggy McClard
Nineteenth century women were quite demonstrative with their love and friendship. They presented friends of both sexes with tokens of friendship such as small paintings, poems, cut and woven hearts and hands, pressed flowers, braided locks of hair. These gifts were added to the memory book which the gift recipient almost certainly had at home. Friendship albums were offered for sale, often bound in leather by book merchants, sometimes with the owner's name or monogram engraved in gold onto the leather cover. Young ladies filled these albums with paper and fabric cuttings of hearts and hands embellished with woven or otherwise arranged hair of friends and family.
Woven hearts and hands embellished with hair were traded as 19th century tokens of love and friendship. The double lobed heart has been the symbol of love since antiquity, showing up in Cro-Magnon pictograms and early Egyptian paintings. European immigrants brought the heart as the symbol of romantic love to America where they added two other symbols, the heart and hand and the heart in hand which both symbolized the heart's guidance of the hand's actions. This beautiful and sensitive image of love shows up in highly collectible Christmas, New Years, and Valentine greetings and declarations of love.
Because hair does not disintegrate if it is properly protected, American women made it a symbol of abiding love as well as deeply felt loss. Mothers kept locks of their children's hair and unmarried women often gave locks of their hair to suitors as tokens of love. Locks of sitter's hair were often added to miniature portraits. A popular nineteenth-century women's periodical described hair ". . . at once the most delicate and last of our materials. [It] survives us like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now." Shaw, Robert, "United as this Heart You See: Memories of Friendship and Family", Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana, Ed. Jane Katcher, David A. Schorsch, Ruth Wolfe. Marquand Books, 2006. Page 101 (quoting Leigh Hunt, Godey's Lady's Book (May 1855)).
Symbolism was extremely important to 19th century women who used it extensively in their tokens of friendship and love. Clasped hands symbolized "hands in trust forever" and this symbol is found on many friendship and love tokens of the period. Many poems and paintings included the request "remember me." A single heart symbolized the source of the soul. A basket signified wealth and riches of the maternal body; a box was a feminine symbol, a receptacle. A butterfly suggested the flight of the soul. An interlocked chain indicated communication. An anchor represented hope. A clock meant the passage of time and sometimes represented death. A dove meant purity or peace; a swan meant love and purity. A flower cast down with petals strewn below might indicate death. A dog represented fidelity. A cornucopia meant abundance. Color was also incorporated to change the symbolism of some flowers. A deep red rose meant bashful shame. A white rose represented sadness; a yellow rose meant "let us forget", a red rosebud meant pure and lovely and a white rosebud was for someone who was too young to love.
Calligraphy drawings made their way into friendship albums atop handwritten poems and on handmade calling cards that might include a beautifully flourished dove above a scripted name. Young women often painted beautiful symbols of affection on small round papers that were intended to be set inside the cover of a father or husband's watch so that he would think of the giver every time he checked the time. These small watchpapers were done in watercolor on paper (often with saw-tooth cut borders) and as small embroidery pictures. Sea moss was pressed into letters and small pictures to add to the memory albums. Flowers, birds and butterflies were painted in watercolor and then meticulously cut out so that they could be applied to larger paper in compositions that might also include a poem or the woven or looped hair of a loved one.
Friendship might also be pledged in the form of a puzzle in which the intersection of connecting shapes symbolized the vow on constancy. A knot (a familiar theme in love puzzles) represented linkage, bonding, connections without beginning or end.
Today we value these love and friendship tokens as memories of the past and a hope for the future. The pictured token is taken from a friendship album and is inscribed "Mrs. Preston Present from M.M.B." It contains the hair of Martha Hill, aged 18 months and Patience Hill, aged 12 years. This rare token also includes small cut paper hands and hearts, Dresden tape and fraktur-like watercolor painting.
Visit www.peggymcclard.com to see more photos and my current inventory of 19th century love and friendship tokens.