Valentines stir pleasant memories

By on January 23, 2013

By: JOYCE ZIMMERMAN Review Correspondent, Staff Writer

Want to impress your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day? If she (or he) fancies anything old fashioned or enjoys antiquing, consider bypassing the drugstore cards and look instead for a perfect match among the wealth of antique and vintage valentines available. The selection is vast and it is not hard to find a treasure to send to someone special or to add to your own collection.

Long before Hallmark, suitors sent flowers, chocolates, homemade valentines, and other lovely gifts to their loved ones on Valentine’s Day, celebrated each year on Feb. 14. However, the history of Valentine’s Day, and the story of its patron saint, is shrouded in mystery.

Legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served the early Christian church during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defiled Claudius and continued to perform marriages in secret. When his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Supposedly, his execution occurred on Feb. 14.

According to the legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first "valentine" greetings himself when he sent handwritten notes of love and encouragement to friends and fellow Christians signed, "From your Valentine," an expression still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic and romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.

It is hard to distinguish between legend and facts — however, one thing we do know for certain — Valentine’s Day is huge in America, as well as many other parts of the world including Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and beyond. Millions of Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged annually, making it the second most popular card-sending holiday after Christmas.

The oldest known valentine still in existence today is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.

Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. The most creative ones were intricate and hand cut, embroidered or painted, and decorated with whatever was at hand — pressed flowers, snippets of dress fabric, even locks of woven hair.

In the 1840s, a young lady named Esther Howland began selling the first mass-produced (although still hand-made) valentines in America. Howland, known as the "Mother of the Valentine," made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures. Her Victorian designs featured imported lace and gilt papers, often in five or six layers. Lovers lifted flaps, pulled tabs and opened windows until they discovered an affectionate message or perhaps even an engagement ring slipped into a hidden compartment. The industry she invented in the mid-1800s turned the celebration of romance into a booming business.

The demand for Howland’s cards was so great she recruited friends to help put them together using an assembly-line process long before Henry Ford did. A savvy businesswoman, she developed both simple cards that sold for a few cents and highly elaborate lace paper confections that sold for an astonishing $50. By 1900, printed cards began to replace hand-made versions due to improvements in printing technology.

According to collectors, card makers were always trying to keep a step ahead of customers, picking up on inventions and trends. As cars were mass-produced at the turn of the 20th century, valentines pictured couples in cars. In the 1950s, with the interest in space exploration growing, a typical card showed a starry-eyed couple aboard a moon-bound rocket ship. During the war years, some featured patriotic scenes with flags, battlefield tents, and pictures of soldiers with their sweethearts. Inventions such as the telephone, radio and television were frequently the focus of vintage valentines, along with red roses, hearts and cupid figures.

When starting a collection, try looking close to home. Look for valentines your parents or grandparents may have saved in a hope chest, shoe box, or even between the pages of books. These valentines probably have greater sentimental value than financial worth, but often inspire people to start collecting. According to seasoned collectors, your treasured valentines should be stored away from sunlight in acid-free containers or folders. These are easy to find in scrapbooking supply or craft stores and contain the words "acid-free" or "archival quality" on the labels.

Prices range from a quarter to hundreds of dollars, depending on the card’s condition, rarity, artwork, desirability and reputation of its designer or artist. Three-dimensional valentines and those with moveable parts, called mechanicals, are often worth more.

Today’s e-cards are one more clever way valentines manage to keep evolving, but many people still believe the paper ones will always pull more powerfully on the heartstrings. Estate sales, eBay, paper shows, and antique shops, such as the ones along "The Strip," are great places to search for additions to your romantic collection or for a unique valentine for your special someone. Happy hunting! More VALENTINES, page A10

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