The Very Romantic Month of February

Colonial Sense
One of the earliest hand-color, cut out valentines was sent to Elizabeth Sandwich from Henry Drinker in Philadelphia in 1753. She eventually became his wife.

Love messages span the centuries, and are interwoven with culture and history creating a touching view of actual people and their sentimental values. They provide insights into the concept of love and romance in different historical periods.

Although the roots of Valentine’s Day stretch back to A.D 496 (when it was established by Pope Gelasius I to commemorate the life of a Christian martyr), historians agree that the holiday did not become associated with any romantic notions until the late-middle ages. Prior to the 1400s, when the first printed reference to the pairing of birds on Saint Volontyne’s Day appears, messages of love were said or sung.  Even though many love tokens were exchanged throughout the year as simple tributes of love and affection, it was the month of February that became associated with romance, possibly since it marks the beginning of the mating season for birds.

The precursors to valentines were “scissor cutting,” or scherenschnitte in German. Various religious sects used the art form to make Devotionals, created for the joy of the artists’ religious faith.  Beautifully executed works of art emanated from from French and German-speaking countries. Vellum was delicately knife-cut to emulate the finest tatted lace, and was often adorned with gouache miniatures of saints. These religious tokens provide a significant link in the development of the valentine, and help us to understand their important role in the intimate personal communication between friends and lovers so many years ago

Although paper valentines were exchanged in Europe and were especially popular in England, early Dutch settlers in the American colonies celebrated Valentine’s Day according to the customs they brought with them to the New World. Young Dutch women believed that the first man she laid eyes upon on Valentine’s Day was to be her future spouse.

It wasn’t until the 1700s that colonists began exchanging handmade cut-paper valentines, often with a written message and carefully applied colors. Early paper manufacturers were inspired by the designs and the motifs that endured during the evolution from handmade to manufactured valentines.  As the precursors to the magnificent machine-made lace paper marvels, 19th century hand-cut designs are notable landmarks to a modern collection, and are still occasionally available.

Donna Albino
A beautiful lace and gilt valentine from the 1870’s imprinted on the front fold edge by the lace maker Wood, and marked on the back with a red H, for Esther Howland 1847.

In the early 1800’s, valentines began to be assembled in factories and were made with real and paper lace and ribbons.  During the early 19th century, as they became more sophisticated and acquired elegant cameo-embossed, satin-covered surfaces, and often incorporated secret panels and hidden messages.  Mechanical cards were a popular invention, as were cobwebs and open-work lace paper. The Biedermeier Period, circa 1820, recognized for elegance in furniture and design, also stimulated the creation of some of the most elegant greetings ever seen.  Tiny hand-painted and embossed paper ornaments, gilded die-cuts, or mother-of-pearl were affixed to silk chiffon, and framed with engraved messages, to create beautiful compositions.

In the mid 1800s, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, became known as the “Mother of the American Valentine.” Her father operated a large book and stationery store where she was a printer and artist. Inspired by an English valentine she had received, she became known for the artistry of her designs and her success at commercializing and mass producing Valentine’s Day cards.  Her distinctive handmade cards made of paper, lace and ribbons that were pasted together are cherished by collectors to this day.

Collectors love Victorian three-dimensional valentines that feature die-cut images that open into three-dimensional views. Some collectors look for postcard valentines, die-cut school-type valentines from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and mechanical valentines with moving parts from the 1950s.

One of the most important things to recognize in purchasing antique valentines is the condition of the piece. Collectors acquire the highest quality pieces, which are becoming more and more scarce due to the availability of shopping anywhere in the world with the click of the mouse. Some early valentines have recently sold at auction for upwards of $1,200. Collectors seek the same rare and beautiful pieces that have survived generations and over time these will be removed from the marketplace, and added to collections all over the world.

Also, ephemera, which describes all paper antiques, are very perishable. Delicate paper lace, German die-cut scrap, and honeycomb tissue paper deteriorate if not properly stored. People had a tendency to tuck valentines into old scrapbooks, sometimes even applying old cellophane tape or glue to the backs or corners, which greatly lowers their value.

Valentine production was affected by a timeline of events, such as wars, the Industrial Revolution, changes in the postal system, and politics affording collectors a peek into what romance looked like from early America to the present.

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Michelle Galler
About Michelle Galler 23 Articles
Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Washington, Va. If you have questions or finds, email her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.