True Lover's Knot

by Linda McNeil

Love has been a constant strand in the threadwork of man's life style. Loved ones have always presented one another with love tokens in some form or another. St. Valentine's Day is the holiday that is closely tied to love. The customs surrounding this holiday underwent some change in America around 1760. It became the custom to give prettily written and decorated letters to one's sweetheart, instead of an expensive present. The earliest of these valentines were always handmade. The recipient of the love tokens always had to decipher the message or verse that was minutely written. Even though these love tokens started primarily as a valentine, as time progressed, the love knots were given to sweethearts at any time of the year.

It is necessary to understand the way of life during the time period that the love knots were popular. Prior to the American Revolution, the youth in America had ample free time to create exquisite handmade love letters. The young people were not distracted by the Twnetieth Century diversions of movies, radio, television, automobiles, etc. They literally had more time for love. The villages were close knit with some families spending their entire life in their community.

The postal system at this time was usually so expensive that only the very rich could aford to mail a letter. This meant that the majority of the love knots were delivered by hand. They were usually deposited on the sweetheart's doorstep or at the local inn. There were no envelopes as we know them today. For the most part the Valentines were just folded and sealed with a dab of wax (usually red wax). If they did have to go by stagecoach, they were then wrapped in another paper and sealed with wax.

The earliest love letters were simple ones. They presented an excellent taste in design. The suitor spent his free time designing and painting endless knots of love. The verses were usually composed by the young suitor; however, there were booklets (Valentine Writers - available as early as 1723 from England) that devoted themselves to verses adaptable to the handmade Valentine. By the 1840's the manufactured or printed Valentine had gradually replaced the handmade ones.

The true origin for the True Lover's Knot in America cannot be pinpointed. They were most likely brought over from Germany by thte immigrants from the Rhineland and the Low Countries. It was the custom in Germany at this time to send love letters to one's sweetheart on normal sized sheets of paper that were colorfully illustrated. The love letter was called FREUNDSCHAFTSKARTEN in German speaking areas. Colorfully illuminated narriage and baptismal certificates were also utilized by the Germans. This form of illuminated manuscript with Gothic style lettering has become known as FRACTUR. Even though the Germans were a close knit group, the popularity of this style spread throughout the colonies. The increase of popularity led to its being translated into English for more versatility. Many of those manuscripts that have been saved by museums originated in the Philadelphia area. The Free Library of Phiadelphia has several outstanding examples of these true lover's knots.

The design for the True Lover's Knot or Endless Knot of Love is a very popular one. It required that the suitor use careful, minute handwriting, scrollwork decoration, watercolor illumination, and endless messages of love twisting around every loop of a labyrinth. It doesn't matter where the reader starts because the loving, tender thought meanders around and around, never ending. Here is an example:


Never ending turning round about and as thou see'st the links and crosses here So hast thy beauty been to me a snare. By the influence of true love I Find I am bereav'd both of heart and of mind. So fairest creature look with pity down and do not on thy faithful servant frown. But pardon him who doth thy love desire, and doth delight thy beauty to admire. On no other then let thy goodness shine in beams of comfort from a face devine. So that my rapturned soul rais'd by thy smiles may pass to bliss forgeting all its foils. This boon I ask. O grant it fair one do. Deny me not so now I'll bid adieu. This true loves Knot to thee my dear I send. An emblem of my love without an end. Crossing, turning, winding in and out Never ending round about .............etc........etc..........


The intricately drawn pen and ink love knots are brightly colored with red, blue, green, and yellow. The color of red usually predominates throughout. The decorations usually include birds, hearts, tulips, and angels as well as minutely written messages of love. The format shows an intricate interlacing of scrollwork and stripwork, colorfully decorated in a style similiar to the medieval manuscripts.

These love knots were primarily an expression of love; however, they were also used as proposals of marriage. The suitor would deliver the love knot to his sweetheart's doorstep. If she accepted his proposal of marriage, she kept the love knot. If per chance she rejected him, she returned the love knot to him. This was one way in which the romantic suitor or the bashful suitor, as the case may be, could say what was in his heart. The True Lover's Knot is truely a labor of love. The suitor could use his ingenuity and loving care to painstakingly create a manuscript that would be carefully read by the sweetheart. With plenty of time on hand the youth of America in the late 1700's and early 1800's literally put his heart in his work.


Comments by artist:

Much to my delight, my great, great, grandmother (Sarah Grover Lewis) said yes to her suitor, George Washington Lewis, and was married in the year of 1800. I found both the proposal and Valentines tucked under newspaper in my grandmother's attic. They were all folded up and fairly well preserved considering that they were over one hundred and sixty years old at the time.

My curiosity was intrigued. I began to research the family history and hunt out details about particular individuals. This proved to be a very interesting and informative activity. In the course of events, I found that I had many traits in common with my great great grandfather. He was also an artist, producing many sketches that have survived. He was also a teacher in a small one room school (Old Eagle School, Strafford,Pa.) and a cattle driver. His copybook that he used to teach school was a work of art. In addition, his letters as cattle driver and poems showed a love of nature and the beauty of the land.




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