Collecting Valentines — The Language of Love Part Three

posted by Karen Hood
Thursday, January 14, 2010

by Nancy Rosin
Source: The Ephemera Society of America

Valentine by Kate Greenaway, England, circa 1870.
Design from the book illustration for Melcomb Manor.

3. The History and Evolution of the Valentine
From the earliest tokens of affection — perhaps a feather, a flower, or a fern frond — evolved the cut paper gifts we cherish today. Since the 16th century, religious mementos with the Sacred Heart motif have been tenderly created in convents in France, Germany, and Holland. Given with respect, admiration, friendship, or love, these handmade devotionals are the epitome of the personal love token. Carefully crafted on parchment or vellum, and lovingly given, collectors of antique Valentines seek them as important touchstones — for they reflect the purest concept of the Valentine. The religious devotionals were surely the precursors of the modern Valentine, their designs emulating the hand-tatted lace of the period. The compositions incorporated decorative edges, framed cartouche paintings of saints and sacred hearts, and were often enhanced by swags and flowers, bouquets and hearts — all cut with a knife!

While artists may have crafted some pieces, unskilled, loving hands created most. That tenderness is a part of the personal aspect of collecting such charming, often primitive ephemera — a communication with the past, and an intimacy with the real people who made and received them. In such totally different time periods, in countries far apart, crude paper, rustic equipment, and candlelight, nurtured with love and naïve artistry, inspired some of our most wonderful treasures! Given with affection, the recipients carefully saved them… pressed within the pages of a book, safely tucked in an album, or framed for all to see. The “romantic” in me believes that each piece in my collection tells a special story — and the reality is that they were all crafted in historic times that were so different from ours, that we must be in awe of their very survival! Protecting them for future generations is the obligation, and often the challenge, for the modern collector.

There really were no “Valentine cards” for centuries. First, the “Valentine” was the chosen person, and actual lotteries existed for many years. We have recordings, in Samuel Pepys’ fifteenth century Diary, of expensive items such as jewelry, hosiery, and gloves being given as Valentine gifts, as well as the very first mention of a little Valentine note on blue paper with gilt letters! We have records of some other small love messages having been written, but during the Reformation, an effort was made to encourage people to select a Saint to honor instead of a person, and that is apparently when the devotional pieces began. From the sixteenth century, nuns in convents in France and Germany created tiny cut-work treasures out of parchment or vellum, decorated with images of saints or hearts — or even the endless knot of love — and sold them for the benefit of charity. These were given as gifts to commemorate virtually all celebrations: births, deaths, communion, baptism, marriage, birthdays, and St. Valentine’s Day! It is possible to monitor the evolution of Valentine design through these early design elements.

Valentine by Esther Howland,
Worcester, Massachusetts, ca. 1850.

Gradually, as the techniques of making paper advanced, the magnificent cameo-embossed papers appeared. It became designated for elegant love letters and Valentines, and numerous talented English manufacturers provided romantic stationery for their increasing numbers of customers. In Germany and Austria, the elegant cards created to celebrate New Year’s and Name Day Festival were crafted of similar materials, and collectors seek them for their rarity and beauty as well. While lace paper appears to have made earlier in the century in Germany and Austria, the English discovery, in 1834, of the technique for producing fantasies in open-work embossed lace paper, created a canvas for creativity and artistry which has not been duplicated.

In America, Valentines were largely handcrafted until that time and the influence of the immigrant German cultures resulted in the wonderful folk-art paper items known as scherenschnitte — paper cutting — and fraktur — paper designs incorporating the German writing and imagery. Paper was scarce and costly, and free time to create special missives was also limited because of the responsibilities of work and school. The handmade love-tokens are, for me, the epitome of the tender art of communication — and the variety — from the most primitive to the most elegant calligraphic penmanship — reflect the beauty and tenderness of the sentiment. These, then, are my favorites because I can “feel” the presence of the person who gave, made, or received them. Their dedication to saving them in albums, pressing them between the pages of a book, or mounting them upon the wall for all to savor, commits me to saving them for posterity.

Several publishers of lithographs and wood engravings were making manufactured Valentines in New York early in the century, and by mid-century, the famous maker, Esther Howland, had set up her business in Worcester, Massachusetts. She established the first all-female assembly line workshop, as well as a “cottage-industry” where ladies would have materials and samples delivered and picked up at their homes, thus mass-producing Valentines in quantity. Her contribution to the popularization of the tradition and the sending of decorative lace Valentines cannot be over-emphasized. The smaller ones generally are marked N.E.V.Co. for her New England Valentine Company, or with a red “H” and a number indicating the price. Large, ornate masterpieces, with multiple layers, and beautiful composition have never been found with signatures, yet have been attributed to her because of their styling and components, and by the magnitude and uniqueness of her New England operation.

Victorian-style Collage Valentine,
McLoughlin Company, New York, 1880s.

As the Industrial Revolution advanced, people had less time to spend at home crafting love missives, and machinery was able to create Valentines which replaced them. Lost was the personal touch, the individuality, and the infinitesimal detail, but people were entering a modern age, and chromolithography made it possible to mass-produce by machine. We see the demise of the old styles in Valentines, but a later “Victorian” appeal which we can identify by the heavy layers and applied scraps (die-cuts). These replace the delicate hand-made confections which preceded them, but they were truly lovely in their own way. Today, we can display these in shadow boxes, with the layers separated in a three-dimensional manner.

A crude and rude type known as the penny-dreadful, or vinegar valentine, was popular among a class of people far different from those sending lacy and romantic tokens. These were made on a cheap pulp paper and were frequently vulgar — and often destroyed. They are a fascinating aspect to the collection, I believe, and contribute further insight into the personalities and lifestyles of the people. Aimed at occupations, appearance, or habits, nothing was sacred.

Post-card Valentines and die-cut open-out styles became very popular towards the end of the nineteenth century, and are an available “paradise” for today’s collector. Every theme has been included, and one could make a collection, for example, of items with a transportation motif — automobiles, ships, trains, carriages, planes, dirigibles — or only of adorably charming children painted by leading artists of the period These open-outs were decorated frequently with honeycomb tissue paper or scraps which made them unique. Made of a thick cardboard which can become very brittle, pristine examples are very desirable and would be the basis of a collection of increasing value. They were largely manufactured in Germany and Britain, many by famous factories.

By World War I the production of Valentines largely ceased because of the demands of the war, and little is seen until the 1930’s. The colorful Walt Disney creations are the highlight of this period, and extremely collectible, as one tries to acquire an example of EACH one! Designed with the characters from their famous movies, they now appeal to all ages — and especially to those adults who remember them as children! American companies such as Norcross and Hall Brothers produced a vast number of cards. During World War II the styles were very simple, and dominated by themes such as “For My Sweetheart in the Army”. Simplicity was still the theme for years, and by the 1970s, I believe, we see the beginnings of a renaissance, as old-fashioned designs — even open-outs — appear again. Today, it is possible to find an occasional greeting card with a treasured and timeless message, but they are mostly “contemporary” — with little relationship to the delicate and marvelous treasures which would have been cherished and saved “forever”. One can find every cartoon theme, as well as those with musical chips inserted! Cards are available in virtually every language, and earmarked for ethnic segments of the population. For me — as the “passionate collector” I want them all — and frankly, if I want to have a comprehensive collection, showing the real evolution of the Valentine, I need to have them — it’s just that some will be more special than others.


This is a five-part article. Stay tuned during the rest of the week for the continuation. Tomorrow: Varieties of Valentine and the Creation of a Collection. In the meantime, if you’re looking for great Valentine’s Day gifts, check out Karen’s Collectors Cottage!

Leave a Reply