18th-century puzzle purse love token (all images courtesy John Overholt/Houghton Library) (click to enlarge)

Today, as the art of handwritten notes gradually fades, one common way to court someone is to slide into his or her DMs. Perhaps a slightly more graceful and heartfelt tactic was the issuing of exquisitely handcrafted, paper love tokens, complete with original messages of romantic poetry, that lovers of the 18th century particularly favored. Recently, Harvard University’s Houghton Library acquired one such love token dating to the late 1700s, possibly fashioned by a New Englander. Delivered to his lady of interest in the form of a puzzle purse, it records the unrequited passions of one gentleman who signed off as “E.W.” and offers a glimpse of the intricate, artful handiwork of a bygone time.

Curator John Overholt demonstrates the folding a facsimile of the puzzle purse

Curator John Overholt demonstrates the unfolding of a facsimile of the puzzle purse

Made of a single, one-foot square of laid paper, the love token was folded so it could form a four-inch square, with drawings and words carefully designed so the flaps form a pattern when tucked in as well as when opened. Detailed watercolor and ink illustrations of a sun and moon, hearts sprouting flowers, and a Cupid-like figure surround the verse, penned in elegant cursive. At the center are detailed portraits — presumably of the sender and receiver — and while the bright, multicolored inks suggest a carefree and blossoming relationship, the message has rather dark lines that indicate otherwise. A sampling:

Thou art / the Girl and only Maid / That hath my Tender / Heart Betray’d. If you refuse / to be my wife / You will betray me / of my Life. Pale death at last / Shall stand my Friend / And bring my sorrows / to an End. So I rest your / Lamenting Lover / Till your answer does / me recover.

The story is difficult to weave together from the rest of the lines, but Houghton Library’s Curator of Early Modern Books & Manuscripts John Overholt wrote that the writer apparently crafted the work after the woman he proposed to rejected him. The style of the puzzle purse exemplifies an American folk art tradition, and Overholt noted two other examples of centuries-old, romantic puzzle purses: one, an extremely ornate love token for a woman named Sarah Newlin, is in the American Folk Art Museum; the other, depicting a man in a wide-brim hat in a garden, went to auction at Sotheby’s last year.

Clearly this form, and certain consistent characteristics, propagated through folk culture in the northeast US in the late 18th century,” Overholt told Hyperallergic. “It wouldn’t be too farfetched to compare it to a modern internet meme.”

Both our piece and the Sotheby’s one use the motif of love growing and flowering as depicted through trees and plants, while the American Folk Art Museum item very strongly resembles ours in the way that each of the four folded points come together to form a heart, which is symbolically broken when the token is opened.

According to the American Folk Art Museum, love tokens arrived in the US after Pennsylvania German immigrants introduced the practice in the mid-18th century. The format became popular in the region and was usually highly elaborate, with many decorative elements including lace-like cutwork and common motifs such as lover’s knots and labyrinths. Another notable example belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, resembling a mandala with its fully colored, rounded surface that its maker even snipped at the edges to form a delicate pattern. Meant for the eyes of just one, such puzzle purses are impressive records of dedicated, time-consuming efforts to communicate affection, existing as literal labors of love.


Reverse side of 18th-century puzzle purse love token (click to enlarge)

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...