Discover Vintage America — February 2012

Valentines: heartfelt tokens of love
by Robert Reed

Valentines are considered to be one of the world's oldest greeting cards, hailing back to the Middle Ages. The oldest valentine in existence, created in 1415, is on display in the British Museum in London.

One old English custom called for the drawing of lots for lovers each February 14. The person whose name was drawn was given a present and a brief written message. Eventually the drawing was expanded to include other friends and children but the idea of written affection remained.

The idea of extending Valentine greetings was well accepted by American colonists who adopted it from the British. By the 1730s, booklets were available in the Colonies and in England to assist the writer in preparing the proper message or verse. These “writers,” much like The Young Man's Valentine Writer issued in 1797, offered an array of poetic prose to accompany the homemade valentine.

By the 1750s, those with romance in their hearts also could find standard-sized, gilt-edged letter paper in the marketplace. This fine paper could then be painted, pin-pricked, cut out, and folded after the prepared message was written in.

Possibly the most finely detailed valentines arrived with immigrants from Germany at the start of the 19th century. With them they brought the art of cutting paper valentines with scissors, which remained popular in parts of Pennsylvania for one hundred years. Such precisely cut valentines are considered folk art today, and displayed in many parts of the country including the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio.

A few commercial valentines were available from 1800 to the late 1830s, but the major market for manufactured greetings did not appear until 1840 when the Uniform Penny Postage act was introduced in England. At last, valentines could be sent through the mails at a single uniform low rate, even including matching elaborate envelopes. Such a change created an even stronger demand for the cards and thus an opportunity for profitable production.

By the 1850s lovers and well-wishers could buy 'mechanical' valentines that would move with the pulling of a tab. Others were folded to pop-out, producing a three-dimensional flare when opened.

Makers also were mass-producing both romantic and comical hand-colored lithographic greetings and wood-block prints for expressing valentine sentiments. Both the kindly and the dastardly cards did well with the Victorian public in England and the US.

One especially successful maker of valentines in the US was Ester Howland of Massachusetts. From humble beginnings in the 1850s, the operation became known worldwide. Her cards, signed with the letter H in a red heart, are highly prized by collectors.

Yet with all printing and producing innovations, the need for the personal touch persisted through the Victorian era.

"Some of the cards (of the latter 19th century) were purchased in the form of their various components and actually assembled by their senders," notes Judith Holder, author of Sweethearts and Valentines. "One might purchase a blank card, a paper lace frame, a picture or pictures, and a verse or motto, then glue all these together to produce one's own specially designed valentine."

Victorian valentines, whether store bought or store bought and home assembled, finally evolved into "elaborate products for an elaborate era," observes Demaris Smith in Preserving Your Paper Collectibles. "Lace paper, machine-woven tapestries, satin pillows, parchment, and many other fancies were incorporated into the designs,” she adds.

By the 1890s, mechanical cards and three-dimensional ones were fully available on the American market, although most of them were produced in Europe.

"I have seen some (three-dimensional) with as many as seven levels when fully opened and they are truly beautiful," writes Joseph Raymond LeFontaine in the book, Turning Paper to Gold. "They are difficult to find in good condition and some will bring prices in the hundreds of dollars."

The dawn of the 20th century saw the boom of dazzling new postcards printed by the millions in Germany with their ever-advancing chromo lithography. Postcards, which were less expensive to produce, also added to the growing public feeling that Valentines were not limited to lovers, but could be sent to mothers, grandchildren, nieces and old friends.

This expanding nature of valentine giving led, in part, to the frequent depiction of cupid and children on postcards.

"Most common were depictions of childlike cupids busily mailing, sealing or delivering valentines, bandaging broken hearts, or just shooting cannons," notes Judith Endelman, librarian and curator of special collections at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI.

Moreover, "children appeared with great regularity on valentine postcards--shyly kissing, winsomely dressed in foreign costume, delivering flowers or playing with cupids."

Standard valentines were still being produced in an assortment of styles by such commercial greats as Louis Prang, Elton and Company, and the George Whitney firm right through the postcard craze from 1900 to World War I.

But Americans were generally attracted to the postcards. Most of them continued to be die-cut from Germany, although the work of Raphael Tuck & Sons in England was welcomed, as were the illustrations of Frances Brundage and Charles Dana Gibson.

"United States valentines coveted by collectors mostly also fall into the period between 1900 and 1920," writes Marian Kiamkin in Collectibles, during a time when "German cards were at their most elaborate and a few American companies were still making beauties to celebrate the holiday for lovers."

The market changed again in the 1920s when postcards gradually lost their appeal with the public and the trend toward valentines with their own envelopes resumed.

Today's collectors of valentines often specialize, according to Schroeder's Antiques Price Guide, in comics, postcards, mechanicals, Victorian, Kewpies, Kate Greenway characters, or those signed by specific artists.


The making of mechanical valentines
by Robert Reed

There were at least five basic ways in which makers could add 'movement' to their valentines for an eager public:

• A simple string (usually red) was extended through the card. In one example a squirrel could climb a tree as the string was gently pulled.

• Winged fasteners or eyelet's (sometimes merely staples) were used to attach a two-part valentine allowing one section to be moved slightly back and forth.

• A small wheel attached to the back of the valentine with a metal fastener turned to give the appearance of “blinking” movement.

• A paper tab extended through the valentine and caused parts to slide in and out when moved from side to side.

Printed bars were slotted into a section of the valentine creating movement when a tab was slightly shifted. In one playing card-related card, the moving bars changed the image of the Ace of Hearts into the Queen of Hearts.

Clearly the mechanical valentine market of the early 1920s, like the rest of the valentine market, was dominated by German manufacturers. But as the decade unfolded, more American makers sought to take advantage of the popularity of mechanical valentines.

In 1927 the Beistle Company had a number of mechanical valentines on the market. Other American makers from the late 1920s and into the 1930s included the Auburn Post Card Company, Louis Katz of New York, Carrington Company of Chicago, the Rochester Lithograph Company, and Steiner Litho Company.

A vast majority of mechanical valentines produced during this time weren’t marked by German or American makers. Small type on the front simply identified them as made in Germany or the USA.
Many of the smaller-sized mechanical valentines were popular with school children during the 1930s.

Produced in both countries, competition kept them relatively inexpensive. A specialty catalog of 1937 noted a selection of valentines "with movable parts and bright colors" for around three cents each. Most were five to six inches in height. Larger mechanicals were still readily available but at considerably higher prices.

Mechanical valentines from both countries continued to be available in the American market into the early 1940s and the outbreak of World War II. There were cars where the roof went up and down, cats with moving tails and eyes, children on unicycles, and traffic cops with moving arms.

A few mechanicals could still be found in the late 1940s, but for the most part they had become too costly to produce as school children (a major consumer market) opted for the 'still' valentines, which were sold in packets of a dozen or more.


Robert Reed can be contacted at:

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