When Valentines Were Works of Art
Happy Valentine’s Day! Love may be in the air for some, while others (myself included) might just use this holiday as a great excuse to binge on sugar. But no matter how the adults are celebrating, we can count on school children across the country to tote paper valentines into class today. Store-bought valentines offer all shapes, themes, and sizes – super heroes, princesses, sports stars, and cartoon characters are just a few of the choices. And these days, they really are just for kids. But for many years in the United States and across the globe, sending a valentine was serious business. They were sent during the month of February but it was common for sentimental tokens of affection, manifest in intricate and artistic paper designs, to be sent throughout the year. Until the Christmas card took over around the 1840s, the valentine was the premier form of artistic expression on paper, and the main way for someone to send a note of affection or love. They were sometimes sent, as you’ll see below, when affection was not the intended sentiment.
Yesterday, we celebrated the valentine’s history with Nancy Rosin, President of the National Valentine Collectors Association. Nancy is an avid collector of valentines, and her personal collection encompasses the entire evolution of giving valentines – she has pieces that show valentines’ early association with religious devotion, pieces illustrating the shift to themes of romantic, rather than religious, love, and pieces showing each step in the evolution of artistic craft – from folk art, to die-cut, to chromolithographed, to mass-produced design and printing processes.
In the 19th century, during the valentine’s heyday, industrialization shifted the trend from handmade to store-bought. But even store-bought valentines were intricate and incredibly artistic. Most printers in America were headquartered in the Northeast, and in New York City the printers tended to do business downtown. Most operations that employed woodcutters, illustrators, or printers of any kind kept robust departments dedicated to hand-cut, hand-painted, and hand-lettered valentines. These departments would have served the entire city, year-round, because New Yorkers weren’t just sending valentines in February. Printers’ shops, as well as smaller stationery stores, often had displays year-round advertising their attractive valentines. 19th-century New Yorkers could have strolled into any number of shops, in any neighborhood, and chosen from an array of well-designed and sentimental valentines. Some would be saved in keepsake boxes, but it wouldn’t be uncommon to see a framed valentine hanging in the parlor of a Victorian home. Some of these pieces were so intricate and artistic that they could cost up to $40 – approximately the price of a modest horse and carriage at the time. Giving a valentine could be serious business.
Except when it wasn’t. Not all Victorian valentines were roses and puppy love. Some printers sold books on how to write your own “comic valentines” – jaunty poems or notes that could be sent as lighthearted greetings. But one could also purchase valentines that were meant to offend, or at the very least meant to point out bad behavior. Nancy mentions that many of these valentines are not signed. This leads some collectors to believe that they were never actually sent, but Nancy thinks it’s more likely that they were sent anonymously. You’d have to be a pretty brave soul to sign your name to something so caustic. (And, hopefully, many were simply sent to friends who were in on the joke.)
In the end, Nancy says, the history of valentines mirrors the culture at large. These senders and receivers were people just like us – they had crushes, passionate friendships, contentious relationships and lifelong romances. The 19th-century was, in general, a more sentimental time, so it’s not surprising the market responded with beautiful and often very emotional products. Although now the tradition of giving actual valentines is mostly relegated to children’s classrooms, its a rich tradition that touches almost every aspect of life – religion, love, success, loss, and mourning.
Nancy brought many pieces from her own collection to the program last night, hosted in the cozy Houston Street cafe Fair Folks and a Goat. Attendees were treated to coffee, tea, and candy while they perused Nancy’s historic valentines, displayed right alongside the modern stationery currently sold at Fair Folks. While we still send notes of love and friendship in pretty cards and envelopes, the true art of Victorian valentine-giving has fallen to the wayside. But one tradition I’m not sad to see has disappeared? Those mean-spirited valentines. Let’s leave that one in the past – there’s enough acrimony floating around these days.
You can browse more photos from last night’s program, and even see a video of Nancy’s entire presentation. And if this topic interests you, I recommend reading this great article on the blog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring Nancy’s work with their valentine collection. Get into the spirit! And maybe go shopping in your local stationery store for some pretty valentines cards – let’s keep the tradition alive!