V&A Dundee

Valentines: Women in the Workforce - Ishbel McLean

Sincerely, Valentines tells the story of Scotland’s most pioneering and successful commercial photographers, best known for popularising the holiday postcard on a global scale. Hear from Ishbel McLean, a former employee as she shares her memories working at Valentines.

As part of Sincerely, Valentines – From Postcards to Greetings Cards, we commissioned Rob Kennedy to create a film which focussed on the stories and experiences of those who worked for Valentines, highlighting the important contribution Valentines made to Dundee’s social, cultural and industrial heritage.

To do this, we spoke to many former employees, including a number of incredible women from the workforce, about their role, experiences and the day-to-day running of the Valentines factory on Kingsway.

One of these women was Ishbel McLean, who started working for Valentines aged 15 and was based at 152 - 154 Perth Road before moving to work in the Kingsway building until she left in 1954, aged 19.

Ishbel recalls working from 8.00 – 17.30, working an extra half hour to 18.00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays for extra pay. Her wage at the time was around £1, 3 shillings and 6 pence per week – all of which went to her mum Jean Durie, some of which was given back to Ishbel as pocket money.

"There was no specific job ‘titles’ given out – everyone just knew what their role was. There was no memory of any specific training either, you just got stuck in."

One of Ishbel’s roles at Valentines was to hand paint and colour real photographs using a brush. Starting off with the ‘buff’ colour first, then red, blue, green, and yellow – the five main colours of a postcard, which as Ishbel recalls, was “a time-consuming but enjoyable process".

A black and white image of a young girl standing by a desk dressed in a long chequered skirt and shirt.
Ishbel Elizabeth Moncur McLean (nee Durie), early 1950s. Image courtesy of Ishbel McLean and Hannah Kettles

One of Ishbel’s best friends in her class at school, Betty Dick, also started at Valentines at the same time doing the same job. On a Friday, Betty and Ishbel would get the job of sweeping up the wooden floors. They’d fill up two lemonade bottles and spray each passageway “so the stour wouldn’t come up on to your nose and heid” then swept it up, putting it into big containers. They would use the lift to go down to the furnace and empty the bins from all the different departments, all of which would take around 30 - 45 minutes.

When everyone moved to the Kingsway factory shortly after this time, Ishbel was given the job of spraying and hand-colouring postcards. While doing that particular job, staff were given a (free!) pint of milk every day which they were instructed to drink to clear their throat of the fumes. A few months later, she began working on the calendars, where she would count calendars, clock them, turn them over onto the back and cover with sheets of stiff, brown paper and then spray them. She later went on to work on the seasonal cards where she would sit with others adding ribbons and other embellishments on to the cards.

During this time, Valentines also had a warehouse in Lochee where Ishbel would sometimes go along and buy some postcards for herself or her mum. She really enjoyed working at Valentines and at the time she remembers being aware that Valentines was a big company, with the postcards she would help create being shipped all across the world.

Hear Ishbel share her memories of working at Valentines:

Did you or your family work at Valentines? We are gathering memories about life at the factory, and its significance to Dundee and we would love to hear from you! Contact us at valentines@vandadundee.org

A huge thanks to Ishbel and her grandaughter Hannah Kettles.