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Antique Valentines

Antique Valentines
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Antique Valentines

Each year as Valentine’s Day approaches, I say to my husband, “Please don’t send me roses.” Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate the fact that I have a thoughtful husband. But for me, it is the idea of getting roses that most appeals to me. The roses themselves always leave me a little cold. They’re often too big, too pristinely packaged, and a little overdone. They seem to shout the words “I love you” when a whisper in my ear would have done just fine. Dare I say it, when it comes to Valentine’s Day, it’s the thought that counts. It’s the gesture of affection that pierces the heart.

Which brings me to the Victorians. Those folks knew how to express a thought, profess love, and send a valentine. That’s why more than 100 years later, antique valentines — bits of hand-colored paper and lace penned with thoughts of love and longing — still resonate with the romantic in all of us.

Antique valentines are the simplest tokens of affection, but they carry a heavy emotional appeal,” notes Kerry Shrives, Victoriana expert at Skinner, Inc., and an avid fan of early valentines. Over the past 20 years, she’s seen the interest in holiday collectibles, including antique valentines, grow significantly. She adds, “Valentines are easy to collect because they don’t require a lot of storage room, they’re affordable, and the variety is nearly endless.”

In the early 1400s, the very first written valentine was exchanged in England. Today, that example is housed in The British Museum in London. Fast-forward to the mid-19th century, when Valentine’s Day became a commercial enterprise. The first American to mass-produce valentines was New England native Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, who set up a cottage industry assembling valentines in her home. She later founded a highly successful business, and these examples are among the most desirable valentines today. Look for cards marked “N.E.V. Co.” (for New England Valentine Company) or marked with a red “H.”

For would-be collectors, I offer these general rules of thumb. The fancier and more elaborate the decoration, the better. Three-dimensional valentines or those with moving parts fetch the highest prices. Ditto for valentines with their original envelopes. Cards with die-cuts, gold leaf embossing, lace overlays, cobwebbing, and honeycomb tissue pop-outs tend to be more desirable than plain postcards. Valentines that are not signed fetch more than those with signatures and greetings. As with any paper collectible, condition is vital. Shy away from valentines with creases, discoloration or stains due to age, wear to edges and corners, adhesive residue, or musty odors. Antique valentines begin around $30 to $50 apiece for small postcards and simply decorated items. Highly decorated examples by Howland can fetch several hundred, even $1,000 each. You’ll find valentines at flea markets, yard sales, auctions, antiques stores, and, of course, online.

So this Valentine’s Day, take my advice. Skip the roses. Send your sweetheart a lacy paper creation whose message has endured for a hundred years. The sentiments expressed are sweet. One might even think them sappy. But they’ll never beg the question, “Where’s the love?”

Catherine Riedel represents Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers of Boston.

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7 Responses to Antique Valentines

  1. Jenifer Lewis February 10, 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    Lovely article and lovely idea. My husband and I exchanged them once and they are now in little frames by each of our dressers.

    One thing: the last sentence should read instead, “But they’ll never ask the question, “Where’s the love?”" “Begging the question” is a term used in logic and it means “to assume what has still to be proved.” Here’s an example from Bartleby: ?To say that we should help the region?s democratic movement begs the question of whether it really is democratic.?

  2. John Foley February 9, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    We grew up in Worcester MA. and recall Howland Terr, not far from our neighborhood.

    Now I wonder if that street was named for Esther or her family. Our parents and teachers never mentioned E. Howland or her beautiful cards.We hope to see one some day.

    Thank you for another interesting article.
    Judy and Jay Foley DePere WI.

  3. Eura Olsen February 10, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    I love those valentine. I have a couple from early 1900. happy valentine day everyone.

  4. L.B. Hancock December 7, 2010 at 2:09 am #

    There was a great Valentine poem printed in Yankee about 20 years ago. I can’t remember the name of the author, but it was called simply “A Valentine,” with the subtitle “after Heisenberg”. It begins:

    “It is just good physics how, merely by observing, the observer changes the observed.
    Perhaps the human heart works onthe same principle…”

    Does anybody remember this one? I sent it to my late wife when I was overseas, and would like to see it again (I’ve long since lost the original…) Any help? Thanks … LBH333 [at] HotMail [dot] Com.

  5. Tracey McCall February 10, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    Page 28
    1 page matching “It is just good physics how merely by observing the observer changes the observed” in this book

    About the author (1994)
    Wallace is the Felix Professor of Poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and serves as general editor for the University of Wisconsin Press’s poetry series. He divides his time between Madison and a forty-acre farm in Bear Valley, Wisconsin.

    Bibliographic information
    Title Time’s fancy
    Pitt poetry series
    Author Ronald Wallace
    Publisher University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994
    Original from the University of Michigan
    Digitized Mar 13, 2008
    ISBN 0822938685, 9780822938682
    Length 75 pages
    Subjects Poetry / American / General
    Poetry / General

  6. Carole Spodobalski February 13, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

    Esther Howland was an alumna of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. There is a current exhibition of vintage Valentines at the college. Go here for more info and a video of some of the Valentines in the colllege’s collection:

  7. Carole Spodobalski February 13, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

    @ LB Hancock, I found the Werner Heisenberg quote that you are seeking:

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