Won’t You Be My Valentine?

Posted on February 13, 2019 by Usha Lee McFarling | Comments (1)

Biedermeier friendship card
This Biedermeier friendship card made in Germany or Austria in 1847 is notable for its ornate, jewel-like beauty. The Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
 

The modern valentine is inextricably linked to romance—candle-lit dinners, a dozen red roses, and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. But the long, complex, and fascinating history of valentine cards shows that they have a vastly different origin. Recently donated to The Huntington, the Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera—a collection of more than 12,300 greeting cards, folk art drawings, and sentimental notes—traces the surprising evolution of valentines and shows how, over time, these tokens of affection have continually intersected with and reflected important societal shifts.

The collection reveals that the precursors of today’s valentine cards have a decidedly religious origin. In the mid-16th century at convents in French- and German-speaking areas of Europe, nuns created devotional images they would then sell for charity. Wielding knives designed for sharpening quills, nuns cut delicate patterns into parchment that were so fine they resembled the lace borders that would one day adorn future valentines. These devotionals were often painted by hand with fine gouache miniatures of saints. The religious hearts of saints later evolved into the secular hearts of couples in love. The endless knot now common as a symbol of marriage started as a symbolic labyrinth that led to enlightenment or God’s love.

Early devotional card
The lacy patterns in this early devotional card were hand-cut by nuns in France or Germany in the mid-18th century. Such lacy motifs would become an enduring pattern for centuries. The Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
 

The evolution of valentine cards also sheds light on changing techniques for using and constructing paper. German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania starting in the late 17th century brought with them intricate scherenschnitte (scissor cutting) techniques. By the mid-19th century, hand-assembled cards using die-cut paper lace marked the beginnings of valentine mass production. As the manufacturing process matured, sophisticated movable and three-dimensional designs grew in popularity.

One sentimental motif for 19th-century lovers featured a courting man and woman printed on a flap that opened to reveal an image of the couple standing at a wedding altar. Other valentines with movable parts included web-like designs that spiraled open to reveal images of beautiful women, romantic landscapes, or, in one surprising instance, a mouse! Later fold-out cards represented not only children, couples, and cupids, but the latest modes of transportation—from trains and steamships to automobiles and dirigibles.

20th century fold-out valentine card
As card manufacturing evolved, valentines began to include such complex fold-out designs as this one made in Germany for an American audience, circa 1900. The Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
 

Some of the most touching valentines are those that were intended to be sent in times of war. During the American Civil War for example, one card design featured a flag-draped military tent that opened to reveal a lonely soldier writing to his beloved. Many of the Civil War valentines in the Rosin Collection also contain notes that speak vividly of events and living conditions experienced by soldiers. During such times of privation, valentines were also made from wallpaper or other scraps.

American Civil War valentine
A classic American Civil War valentine design of a flag-draped tent opens to reveal a soldier inside his tent. The Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
 

Not all valentines were pleasant to receive. The mid-19th century featured a type of greeting card known as the vinegar valentine. These crudely drawn caricatures were usually sent anonymously and often portrayed their female recipients as spinsters or loose women and their male recipients as lechers or boozers. These cards once rivaled their more romantic counterparts in popularity and sometimes added insult to injury by forcing their recipients to pay postage due.

19th century satirical valentine
Satirical and mean-spirited valentines with their biting verses were a popular way to tease friends and insult enemies in the Victorian era. This card, possibly made in Great Britain, dates to circa 1855. The Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
 

The Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera is currently being cataloged and is expected to be available to scholars in the near future.

Usha Lee McFarling is senior writer and editor in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.

Comments

Thank you for sharing some of your valentine holdings and informational tidbits. Charming!

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