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Be my Valentine, but be sure to send me a Victorian card

By Christopher Proudlove ©

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Poor St. Valentine. He probably never had a sweetheart of his own and he had absolutely nothing in common with lovers. He became their saint quite by chance. His story starts in Rome in about 271AD when the poor wretch was flung into prison for proclaiming his Christianity. There, he attempted to convert his captors and his cellmates and even persuaded the Emperor Claudius Gothicus to grant all Christian prisoners their freedom. It did him no good though. First they virtually clubbed him to death and then for good measure they beheaded him.

A century or so later saw the Christian church using the names of martyred heroes to add an air of sanctity to all former pagan festivals. And so it was with Valentine’s Day. Originally, the Romans had celebrated the feast of Lupercalia – the February festival in honour of Pan and Juno – in a style only they knew how. The frolics were X-rated. Suffice it to say that all Rome’s fair maidens put their names in a hat to be drawn by potential suitors. The results were inevitable. Calling it St. Valentine’s Day at least made things sound wholesome.

The practice of drawing names remained for centuries alongside all manner of other quaint customs. For example, country folk thought February 14th was the day that birds chose their mates. In the Middle Ages, lovers exchanged tokens on that day to show their regard for one another. In the 18th century, unmarried women believed that the first bachelor they met on February 14th would be their future husbands, while Dorsetshire maidens left candles burning in their rooms all night, thinking that their loves’ hearts would melt along with the wax.

One of the earliest commercially produced Valentine cards is in the British Museum. It was published in 1789 by J. Wallis, of Ludgate Street, London, and bears a red heart. The verse reads: ‘Believe my love’s without disguise – so let’s marry and be wise.’. The practice of sending elaborate cards does not appear to have started before the 1800s. The improvement in the postal service in 1815 boosted sales and by 1835, the Post Office was recording an extra 60,000 mailings on February 13th. By 1870, more than a million cards were being delivered each year.

Lacy paper Valentines were popular in the 1820s. Many were made using the 18th century technique of pricking paper with a pin to produce pictures. Some had tiny lift-up flaps, beneath which a personal message could be written. As the custom grew, so cards became more elaborate. Velvet, lace, shells, skeleton leaves, spun glass, feathers, gold and silver wire, scraps, locks of hair were used to decorate cards carrying suitably sentimental verse.

Valentines increased in popularity following the introduction in 1840 of Rowland Hill’s penny post. Ready-made envelopes came into use when specialist printer De La Rue invented a machine to make them which he showed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Valentines which previously had been folded quarto size were now printed smaller to fit into the new envelopes.

Mechanical Valentines were introduced at about the same time which kept the craze alive. Tiny figures could be made to move by pulling a cardboard tongue, while another favourite was a church with a front door that opened to reveal a wedding ceremony in progress. Sometimes a verse would ask the recipient of the card to lift a dainty paper leaf attached to it to reveal the face of the one best beloved by the sender. On peeping beneath, the man or woman would see his or her own face reflected in a tiny mirror. Others bore small trinkets, a tiny bottle of perfume, beadwork, shell designs or small pieces of jewellery.

Comic cards were also popular. One appeared to be a cheque ‘Issued by the Bank of Love’ and signed by Cupid. It promised to pay the bearer the entire love of the sender but its appearance, in the 1860s, was but a brief one. So well printed and convincing were they, the authorities took fright and prohibited their use for fear of them being used in a widespread fraud.

The appearance of the cruel and vulgar Valentine card towards the end of the 19th century signalled the end. For a few coppers, it was possible to insult your deadliest enemy by sending a card anonymously bearing a mocking caricature, complete with the most unkind of verse. A jilted man could send his ex a card warning her that she would end her days a spinster. In reply, her card would call him a Simple Simon. Another read: ‘What goose upon goose, you ill-looking brute; you never will me for a Valentine suit.’ Others chided gossips; the girl ‘weary waiting for a beau’ and the ‘Champagne Charlie’.

In fact, cards became so spiteful that by the 1870s and 1880s, the popularity of the habit of sending any Valentine started to wane. By then, Christmas cards surpassed Valentines in volume of mailings. The First World brought a further decline and, despite a brief rise in popularity in the 1930s, they almost disappeared entirely. Finding Valentine cards in good taste is not easy today either!

Pictures show, top: This charming Valentine postcard came from a French flea market. It was posted in Paris in 1904 and cost me 10 francs. However, the real joy is it was manufactured by Raphael Tuck and Sons – doyen of postcard printers – and is worth £30-40

Below, left to right: A printed and embossed Valentine card, circa 1900, entitled My Heart’s Best Wished All Are Thine. It’s worth £20-25

This lacy frippery is inscribed by hand inside it “To dear Annie with Ernie Jones’ very best love”. It dates from circa 1870 and is worth £25-30

A lacy late Victorian Valentine card titled I Love Thee My Sweet One. Inside is the romantically coy message “From D.E.J.” It’s worth £30-35


Tags: Ephemera · Valentine

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jon Hatfield // May 21, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    In the U.S. market valentines continued to be a major category with mass production (by hand assembly) of layered lace fold valentines increasing in the late 1890s–replaced in part in the early 1900s by mass produced printed fold valentines with embossing & printing that imitated the lace effect. Whitney & McLoughlin were the main publishers, but the assembled fold valentines involved backings, paper laces, & tiny added diecuts acquired from other publisher and McL & Whitney’s subsequent printed forms featured artwork from other publisher sources.

    The glory pieces of American art paper are the outsized upscale fancy diecut mechanical valentines (& other holiday diecut pieces & art calendars) 1900-06 from Tuck and Hagelberg, featuring mostly artwork by Frances Brundage, as shown in Sarah Steier & Donna Braun’s collector book A Bit of Brundage. Nister had a smaller line of diecut pieces, and International Art Publishing Company had a line of fancy diecut valentines featuring Ellen Clapsaddle artwork. Whitney also distributed an upscale line of fancy diecut valentines featuring Ellen Clapsaddle artwork from the Kopal Euro postcards, perhaps by arrangement with IAPCo. The “Winsch” publisher had a small line in the fancy diecut valentine category in the years before the postcards.

    Valentine postcards largely displaced other forms of valentines after 1906 and roughly equalled or exceeded in number Christmas postcards during the U.S. postcard era, which didn’t take off until 1907. While art postcards were at most a side-product to diecut art paper up to 1907, the few lines of U.S.-market postcards 1902-1906 were predominantly valentine postcards. The largest in volume were the Tuck (from Tuck’s New York studio) E. Curtiss somewhat comical yearly valentine sets 1903-06 (1902-06?), one of which consists of 24 cards with occupational themes found everywhere in ordinary U.S. postcard stock. I acquired 19 of these over a year’s span without much searching a few years ago. The postcard shown at the top is from one of the two U.S. Tuck Curtiss sets with national figures themes, 12 cards each. The only notable U.S. set of “vinegar” valentine postcards is an early McL. set. A 1908 Whitney set, much more widely distributed and very common appears to be more comical in intent than hurtful. The Victorian sense of humor is difficult to assess from this point in time. The bulk of the later valentine postcards feature generic cupids, children, etc. and, while charming as a category, do not much fit the category of art postcards and are collected mainly as valentine pieces rather than for the art. However, the Hagelberg, “Winsch,” and International Art Publishing Co. and a few other publishers valentine postcards are art postcards and collected for the artwork involved.

    Except for a line of Hagelberg diecut valentines reusing artwork from the 20 years earlier fancy valentines, U.S. diecut and mechanical valentines after WWI are mostly something of a horror story–mass & poorly produced in Germany, an imitation of the fancy mechanical valentines of the early 1900s. By the late 1920s diecut valentines were another category altogether, pieces exchanged by young school children in a yearly ritual that continued post WWII and collected for the charming children themes involved. The 1930s school exchange valentines include a peculiar group of large single sheet vinegar valentines, mostly aimed at teachers–not sure what to make of them. ha.

    Valentines in various categories and times are the largest collectible category in U.S. paper after postcards (also in various categories but more limited in time span, since the U.S. postcard era began later, 1902, and ended earlier, 1930, than in the UK and Europe–only two major art postcard groups continued into the 1920s, the Intn. Art/Wolf Ellen Clapsaddle cards and the “Winsch” Jason Freixas cards… nothing to compare to the new flowering of children art postcards in the UK and Europe during the 1920s and continuing in Europe through the 30s and surviving into the post-WWII period).

    That’s more or less an outline of the valentine phenomenon this side of the Atlantic.

  • 2 Christopher Proudlove // May 21, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    Thanks Jon, great comment.

  • 3 Jon Hatfield // Apr 29, 2009 at 8:49 am

    I have the impression, perhaps mistaken, that valentines were primarily a U.S.-market phenomenon after the mid-1890s–large assembled pieces, fancy diecuts, & a major category in U.S. art postcards. While there are cupid-themed, etc. early Euro postcards, there appear to be no Euro-market postcards specific to Valentine’s Day–& I have located only one valentine card in Postcards from the Nursery, the classic on UK children art postcards.

    Specifically, the Tuck Elizabeth Curtis valentine postcard you show is a postcard from Tuck’s New York branch (whose manager was Samuel Gabriel). How the card found its way into the early restricted French postcard market is unaccounted-for & unexpected. My impression is that Tuck postcards from its New York and Paris branch offices were distributed only in the separate markets.

    The valentine with angels, one singing & the other playing violin, appears to be a McLoughlin c. 1904 fold U.S. valentine, part of McL’s cheaper then-new valentine line replacing its previous assembled lace layered valentines. (It’s more upscale line of valentines continued to be assembled pieces but in new form: diecut figures attached to rounded parchment paper framings attached to large stiff paper backings.) The angels image occurs with a 1900 German-market anon. publisher postcard and a subsequent c. 1903 Tuck postcard (neither valentine themed–it’s not eveb a particularly apt image for valentine use) & later with at least 2 other U.S. later postcards Christmas themed…probably originally a UK greeting card. McL. used artwork from various sources, mainly Tuck, Hagelberg, Nister, and International Art Publishing Co.’s anonymous German associate art publisher of an early line of Ellen Clapsaddle Euro postcards. Those early Euro EC postcards–selected cards variously also distributed in the UK by Tuck, Faulkner, Stewart & Woolf and others–are various category & subject matter, some romantic but none specifically for Valentine’s Day…but the same cards selected & distributed in the early U.S. art postcard market by International Art Publishing Co. are mostly specifically valentine postcards…plus the Whitney and McLoughlin use of the same artwork is for valentine postcards and mainly for their valentine ephemera lines. International Art Publishing Co. also had its own line of fancy diecut valentines with same artwork. My interpretation is that 1899-1906 assembled & diecut valentines and valentine postcards & late 20s & 30s children valentines were chiefly U.S. market phenomenons, very large and largely without Euro or UK parallel…but still largely UK & Euro publisher products and a large part early UK children artwork for the 1899-1906 period valentines (and, for that matter, for a large part of all U.S. art paper up to the 1910s).

    Apologies for going on at such length on obscurities–somewhat an Aspergerish obsession with the phenomenon of Victorian children art–the first time in human history for children to be the central subject of a civilization’s popular art…quite obsessed with the four or five or six art publishers (German or of German origin) who had international operations (out of all the hundreds of Victorian and post-Victorian publishers and distributors) and who somehow chose to feature the same 3 (or 4 or 5) children artists: Tuck, London (also New York, early 1890s, & Paris in early 1900s, early postcard association w/Wezel & Naumann); Hagelberg, Berlin (also London 1885 & New York 1889); Nister (complicated evolution late 1880s from Nuremberg art printer to London art publisher with New York associate publisher/distributor Dutton & early postcard association with Stroefer; and comparative newcomer International Art Publishing Co. (subsidiary for international operations of Wolf & Co., Philadelphia, associate publisher of 2 lines of early Euro cards, one anonymous & the other Kopal, that is Koch & Palm, Eberfeld–selected cards of both with UK and U.S. publisher/distributors…and numerous further Euro & UK multi-distributor/publisher associations with IAPCo’s international operations over the years up to 1930); and, at a guess and subject to further research, Obpacher Brothers, Munich (on record New York 1882, cited for UK greeting cards 1880s, likely candidate behind 1907-15 & 1921-30 U.S. “Winsch” art postcards & earlier diecuts) and, less certain, Albrecht & Meister, Berlin (late evolution from art printer to several publishers to art publisher???…behind large 1906-11 U.S. postcard group, artwork from earlier German-market postcards, various publishers–all early artwork from Brundage, various sources; Clapsaddle?, connected to anon. publisher line; and unidentified early UK children artists).

    The international aspects of Victorian art publishing are perhaps more obvious from this side of the Atlantic where most of the art paper 1885 up to 1914 is from these few international art publishers and the artwork for much U.S.-market art paper is from those publishers’ primary UK art paper market but where the chief collector interest has been U.S. Victorian artist Frances Brundage (1889 Dutton artwork 20 years later Stroefer postcards and subsequently Nister-Dutton postcards; 1890-1905 W. Hagelberg artwork, some reused with late 1890s WHB Euro art postcards and c. 1905 UK art postcards; 1893-1908 Tuck artwork, some reused with Tuck postcards distributed in UK and France and earlier with early Wezel & Naumann German-market postcards–the artwork almost all originally for these international publishers’ U.S.-market ephemera lines and reused for early international postcards mainly because of the general shortage of artwork suitable for art postcards–little artwork specifically for postcards and that only 1908-1912 and except for 2 or 3 sets for Tuck, all for Gabriel U.S.-market postcards…and interest in Ellen Clapsaddle, whose early publication history 1899-1906 was centered around European art postcards…not that we collectors on this side of the Atlantic have been aware of Clapsaddle’s international publication history 1899-1930, being focused on the IAPCo/Wolf signed U.S. postcards after 1906 or aware of how little Brundage artwork was for postcards and none originally for international distribution…or certainly at all conscious that the bulk of U.S. ephemera and much of early U.S. art postcards was early UK children artwork and that almost all U.S. art paper up to 1910 (that is, art-printed and selected artwork) was not only printed in Germany but was also from publishers with operations located in London or Germany and only branch offices in New York.

    It has come as a surprise (and a pleasant one because of the extraordinary artwork) for U.S. collectors to realize in just the past 3 years that the first internationally published and perhaps best Victorian children artist was UK’s Harriett M. Bennett, whose publication history began 10 years before Brundage and 20 years before Clapsaddle and whose international publication stretches from 1885 into the 1920s. Measured by amount, international extent, and years of publication, these three are the central first artist figures in the larger picture of children art, just as the cited art publishers are the central forces behind Victorian children art paper…not that there weren’t other artists and other significant art publishers, just that these are central.

    European collectors, understandably, have been focused on the flowering of their children art in post-Victorian art postcards. UK collectors not only have an equal extraordinary post-Victorian flowering of children art to focus on but also have so many exceptional early Victorian children artists that only those with substantial signed or initialed later publication have been singled out for attention–and somehow Bennett’s large international presence, mostly unsigned, has been overlooked by UK collectors, just as Clapsaddle’s larger presence in international postcards, mostly unsigned, has been overlooked by U.S. collectors. Basic biographical information is still lacking for Bennett–no birth or death date, no certainty about artwork beyond identified 1887-92 “Nister” book illustrations (reused over and over again, even reissued Stroefer postcard in 1920s), earlier 1880s Hildesheimer & Faulkner booklet illustrations, a few identified early UK greeting cards, and some 1890s Tuck greeting booklets. Later Bennett artwork, especially with the U.S. Winsch postcard group, is speculative but probable.

    In other words, we collectors have been blind-sided all these years by focus on single parts of the larger picture in art paper–on just postcards, on just diecuts, on just illustrated children books, on just one time period, on just one place and market, on just signed pieces, on just specifiable facts, on just one artist, on just one subject matter, etc. etc. That there are 3 central Victorian children artists and 4 to 6 central producers of international art paper does not diminish the other artists or producers (or other subject matter of Victorian & post-Victorian art paper) but provides a framework for valuing each part’s place in the larger picture–not a matter of devaluing small parts or exaggerating large parts but of valuing by comparison and contrast. If we have no idea of the existence of other parts (and that is the present situation–early Clapsaddle, Harriett M. Bennett, Hagelberg, Obpacher, IAPCo’s international operations, the early children art books that became “Nister”–the roles of 6 out of 8 central parts of the larger picture of children art paper are little known or almost completely unknown. Hagelberg–the largest presence in large U.S. fancy diecut valentines 1899-1906 (the glory pieces of U.S. children art paper), we miss out on choices we would otherwise make and miss knowing the place in the larger picture of what we have chosen. For example, the publisher of the most distinctive art postcard group anywhere anytime (extraordinary range of novelty treatments–diecut HTL, pull-tab transformations, squeakers, printing on silk & on silver, various attachments, fantasy frames, etc.) & one of the largest U.S. postcard groups of its time 1907-1912, Frances Brundage’s longest-standing publisher 1890 to early 1920s is unknown by name to U.S. collectors because all but a handful of U.S. Hagelberg pieces have no publisher imprint & are not even recognized as one overall group & much of the Brundage context there is thus unexplored. Except for HTL viewcards, Hagelberg’s German, Europewide, & UK postcards are mostly unmarked, so Hagelberg is not even appreciated in the home German market, although in fact Hagelberg’s major art paper operations were mainly in 1890s UK greeting cards (its only extensively marked art paper product besides UK-market diecut scraps) and the U.S. market large diecuts and then postcards 1899-1912. The Hagelberg product was from early beginnings to 1937 end extreme & distinctive in form and content, just as Tuck was far and away the most varied and extensive in artists, subject matter, and products among all art publishers. Lots yet to learn, especially about Harriett M. Bennett and early Clapsaddle publication history.

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