Long before modern technology yielded talking greeting cards and email salutations, romantics found a way to express themselves with paper Valentine's Day cards. Just because they were made of paper, often by hand, doesn't mean they were simple, however.
Many of the first American valentine crafters adorned their creations with hand drawn sketches, watercolors, pinpricks, and cutouts to make them more interesting and personal.
Sometimes natural elements such as bark, feathers and dried flowers were used along with scraps of cloth, yarn, ribbon and even locks of hair. Occasionally semiprecious stones and jewels found their way into a valentine composition.
The earliest valentine envelopes were sealed with wax and made their way to the recipient through hand delivery. If the greeting was anonymous, it would be left where the intended would surely find it. Most of the oldest valentine treasures like these are in museums now and rarely found by romantic collectors today.
Victorian Valentines and the Era of Mass Production
Mass-produced valentines found their way to the marketplace in the late 1830s with most of them made in Europe. The first printed paper valentines made in the United States appeared around 1840. By the middle of the 19th century, crimson hearts, colorful roses, Cupid with his bow and arrow, and illustrations dealing with matrimony gained popularity with valentine makers and givers alike.
During the 1870s, George C. Whitney developed domestic material and the equipment needed for fancy embossing. Before this machine-age introduction, paper lace was most often imported. About 20 years later, valentines saw even more ingenuity in their creation.
Stand-up cards with a base and several three-dimensional fold-out layers were popular from about 1895 until 1915, as were honeycomb paper puffs which opened to form bells, fans, balls, hearts and other shapes.
Being convenient to mail, the honeycomb cards remained popular for many years. These cards could be mailed flat and then easily folded out to impress the recipient.
Mechanical valentines also came into vogue about this time and continued to be manufactured into the 1930s, although the later mechanicals were not quite as elaborate as those made during the Victorian Gilded Age.
The late-Victorian and Edwardian versions often featured automobiles, ships and trains with moving parts and a paper lever to send these novelties into motion. Unfortunately, the movement and subsequent playtime these items encouraged caused them to deteriorate more rapidly than other types of valentine greetings. This scarcity adds to their value, however, and they are currently prized by collectors.
Collecting Antique Valentines Today
Luckily for collectors, many of these popular items were saved by the recipients. And for ephemera made more than 100 years ago, Victorian cards can be found in relatively good condition in many instances. In fact, the colors on the cards are usually still vivid and bright with only tissue paper decoration and honeycombs showing some fading.
However, those just entering the market seeking vintage valentines will find the supply of older cards dwindling.
The popularity of Victorian decorating and reproduction of these items on calendars, gift wrap and other paper goods during the past 30 years introduced many new collectors to the field.
Those just starting card collections often seek valentine postcards produced from about 1900 to 1920 and newer flat cards exchanged between children during the '40s and '50s due to their affordability and whimsical nature.
Valentine postcards, many kept in albums for years along with other holiday greetings, still look beautiful. Many times they provide insight into life in the early 1900s with the handwritten text discovered through examining the backs of cards.
Frequently humorous or witty, extremely colorful and quite a bit larger than valentines children exchange today, the mid-20th century cards can be entertaining even though they're not usually considered as attractive as older valentines from a collecting standpoint.
As collectibles of the future, however, these clever cards have the potential for increasing in value. Of course, when a mid-century card features a well-known cartoon character, superhero or the like, it can already be worth a pretty penny.