Cupid's arrow has pierced the hearts of collectors in love with old valentines

February 09, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

St. Valentine wrote a letter to his jailer's daughter on the eve of his execution in Rome in the third century A.D. and signed it "from your Valentine."

Ever since we have sent loved ones affectionate messages on Feb. 14 "from your valentine."

By the fifth century, the mid-February Roman fertility festival Lupercalia was called St. Valentine's Day, said to be the day that birds chose their mates. Love birds remain faithful to that ancient ritual. "It is still traditional for a proposal to be made on St. (P Valentine's Day and for the couple to marry in June," said Evaline Pulati of Santa Ana, Calif., who has collected valentines since childhood. In 1977, Mrs. Pulati founded the National Valentine Collectors Association, which now has several hundred members.

Collecting valentines began about a century ago, according to Elizabeth Baird, an antique valentine dealer in Portland, Maine. When English stationer John King died in the 1880s, he had boxes and boxes of valentines, which were offered to London's Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum did not accept the large and unusual gift, so dealers bought them by the pound. There has been a steady trade in old valentines ever since, Ms. Baird said.

The earliest valentines were handwritten verses of love often inscribed on intricately cut and decorated paper. According to Ms. Baird, popular forms of handmade valentines during the late-18th and early-19th centuries were a geometric maze design on paper, turned in a circle to be read, called an "endless knot of love," and folded sheets of paper known as "puzzle purses," which revealed verses and designs as they were unfolded.

Love does not come cheap. A framed circa 1800 handmade American valentine, with watercolor hearts and calligraphic text, sold for $8,800 at a Sotheby's auction in New York City in January.

Commercially produced valentines were first sold in America shortly after 1800, mostly decorated with hearts and flowers. By mid-century, English embossed lace paper was the fashionable material for valentines. Frequently they were decorated with cupids, doves or cherubs, and embellished with hand-applied ornaments such as beads, semiprecious stones, miniature mirrors with gilt frames, tiny envelopes with hidden messages, fabric flowers and feathers, according to Ms. Baird. Lovers with artistic and literary talents often added their own touches to lace paper blanks, which resemble modern doilies.

A thriving valentine industry developed in America during the 19th century. In about 1847, Esther A. Howland of Worcester, Mass., became one of the first Americans to make English-style hand-decorated lace valentines commercially. Ms. Howland's firm, the New England Valentine Co., marked its valentines on the back with a tiny red "H" until the mid-1870s and, thereafter, "NEVCo." It was acquired in 1881 by the George C. Whitney Co. of Worcester, which remained in business until World War II. With so many valentines produced locally, it is no surprise that the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester has a large collection.

The Civil War was a boom time for valentine makers, as soldiers exchanged greetings with their loved ones back home. New manufacturing and printing techniques after the 1870s, particularly chromolithography, increased production of inexpensive, decorative and colorful valentines while decreasing their sentimental, personalized appeal, according to some collectors.

Valentine collectors have special passions. "My favorites are Valentines that have an historical aspect," said Nancy Rosin of Franklin Lakes, N.J. "I feel transported to another era." She also cherishes hand-cut paper devotionals made by nuns in Alsace Lorraine in the 18th century, as well as early-19th century watercolors with heart cutouts. "They best reflect the love relationship between people," she said.

Collectors today adore vividly colored valentines imported from Germany from 1910 to 1930. Americans were in love with new forms of transportation then and sent valentines shaped like cars, dirigibles, planes, trains and boats. They were available lithographed, die cut and embossed on heavy paper, and also as tissue paper standing honeycombs resembling folding party decorations.

Some collectors specialize in valentines designed by famous illustrators, such as Kate Greenaway's endearing children, Walter Crane's romantic art nouveau images and Norman Rockwell's American classics. Cobweb valentines are among the most sought-after forms and can sell for $300 or more. These remarkable inventions appear to be flat pictures, but tug on a petal of a flower in the design, or on a butterfly's wing, and a paper cobweb opens revealing another scene below.

A rarity in Ms. Rosin's collection is an early-19th century fabric valentine used as a sailor's kerchief or "bundle" for his possessions. It's 20 inches square, printed with an endless love knot in the center, verses, hearts and flowers -- complete with the lovers' initials embroidered in a corner.

Valentines made by the millions after 1940 and stashed away in dresser drawers by romantics have great sentimental value but are worth little to collectors.

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Collectors seeking to buy antique valentines in a variety of price ranges and styles can write to Elizabeth Baird's Valentines, P. O. Box 1211, Portland, Maine 04102.

An exhibition of old valentines, "For Your Heart's Desire: Courtship in Victorian America," is on view Feb. 9 to May 10 at the Lockwood Matthews Mansion, 295 West Ave., Norwalk, Conn. 06850.

Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5; for seniors and students $3; children under 12 free.

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