Collecting Valentine’s Day Cards With Category Expert Nancy Rosin

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on
Mechanical heart valentine. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.
Mechanical heart valentine. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.

As the world gets set to celebrate the universal day of love on February 14th, Auction Daily takes a look at the history of Valentine’s Day cards. Auction Daily senior writer Rebekah Kaufman spoke with Nancy Rosin, president of the National Valentine Collectors Association and president emerita of the Ephemera Society of America, to learn more about these heartfelt greetings. 

Auction Daily: What makes a Valentine, a “valentine?”

Nancy Rosin: We think of Valentine’s Day as being only February 14th, but it is said that because of the delays in early deliveries, they could be sent and received a month earlier and a month later. In reality, the same item could be sent any time of the year and be considered a token of love or affection. Before there was a uniform postal delivery system, with uniform postage, valentines could be sent by private companies, messengers, hand-delivered, left under the door, and even hung from a cord on the doorknob! Private deliveries meant the recipient had to pay the postage.

Auction Daily: What is the earliest Valentine you have handled? And how have they evolved, in terms of design, size, and complexity, over time?

Devotional Strasbourg valentine. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.
Devotional Strasbourg valentine. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.

Nancy Rosin: The earliest pieces I have are a page from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493, which details the martyrdom of Valentinus, and then devotional pieces from about 1700. The earliest dated piece is a page torn from a book on which was penned a valentine poem and signed Edward Sangon, Tower Hill, 1694. The first devotionals are referred to as the precursors of the valentine, with their lace cut into parchment for sacred papers.

As paper became available, techniques evolved, and fine stationery was produced. Some of the earliest are simple love letters on fine paper, often with an embossed or lithographed border. The 18th-century satirical illustrations led to comic valentines, and I have one done on paper that is watermarked 1819, long before the Victorian vinegar valentines we often see. As paper techniques evolved, many manufacturers in England began to create fine lace paper that became the background for the beautiful confections we are familiar with today.

The Industrial Revolution changed manufacturing. People were no longer making many valentines by hand because they could buy chromolithograph ones and even postcards towards the end of the 19th century.

Handmade English valentine circa 1805. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.
Handmade English valentine circa 1805. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.

Auction Daily: What makes a Valentine interesting from the collector’s perspective?  

Nancy Rosin: Every collector has their own goals or mission. Some people only like one kind – or want to stay with inexpensive pieces, or children’s or teacher’s kinds of cards. Some, like me, want to chronicle the evolution and create a story that can be shared. I like following the timeline of history. The rarer examples find very high prices – and the Valentine collector may be in competition with collectors of other material, like folk art, or Civil War, for example. A Fraktur folk art piece could cost several thousand dollars. Generally, prices are lower now than they were a few years ago.

American theorem valentine circa 1825. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.
American theorem valentine circa 1825. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.

Auction Daily: Tell us about the role of envelopes with Valentine’s cards. 

Nancy Rosin: Initially, valentines were hand-delivered and often anonymous. After a uniform postal system arose in England in 1840, a new element of stationery became popular: the envelope. For the nominal price of a stamp, letters could now be enveloped in another layer of paper, protected from peering eyes and the damage of handling. 

Beautiful Valentines enclosed in a matching envelope created the potential for additional intrigue and possibilities. For example, an envelope enabled further secrecy of the sender, even more enchanting card designs, and the use of decorative paper closure seals or wax intaglios, further fascinations unto themselves! These were necessary because early envelope flaps were not glued. The art of the letter became multiplied, and the Valentine, the calligraphic script, and the postage stamp, all enhanced the mystique of this special gift.

Esther Howland circa 1850 valentine. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.
Esther Howland circa 1850 valentine. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.

Now that we have the internet’s ability to help us search, it is possible to often learn more about the people named on the envelopes, which is fascinating. I think it’s great to have the envelope, although often they are gone. Philatelists are often seeking valentines as an incredible resource for their stamp material since few Valentine collectors cared about them! Now we do!

Auction Daily: Finally, please tell us about the role of “personalization” on Valentine’s Day cards. Does the presence (or absence) of a personal greeting, note, or signature impact its desirability?

Nancy Rosin: Valentine’s Day was the one day when a woman could freely send a missive — except for Leap Year! To find a piece that is unsigned does not mean that it was never used. Of course, the more information you can glean from the signature, the better.  For one piece, I was able to look up the name and date and found out that the sender was a famous artist – perhaps that’s how he was able to afford such a costly Valentine!

Pennsylvania scherenschnitte valentine circa 1825. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.
Pennsylvania scherenschnitte valentine circa 1825. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rosin.

For more information, please see Nancy Rosin’s website, The Victorian Treasury.

Want to learn more about categories with Valentine’s Day connections? Auction Daily recently explored glass candy containers with a category expert.

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