The exhibition, “Valentines: Tokens of Love,” will run Jan. 29 through Feb. 27 and will feature hundreds of Valentine’s Day cards and mementos ranging from the late 1700s to the 1950s.
Two special Curator’s Talks will take place in February with Dr. George Johnson, who curated the exhibition with his wife, Jeanne. The talks will take place at noon and 2 p.m., Feb. 13, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Cost is $10 for members or $5 for members with prepaid registration. Admission at the door is $15. Register here for the noon talk and here for the 2 p.m. talk.
Dr. Johnson shared some of the ways suitors declared their love and how the act of giving a Valentine evolved into a favorite children’s activity every year.
What are some of the highlights from the exhibition that visitors can look forward to seeing? We will have Valentines from the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s on the main floor. One of the earliest ones has a date of 1823 and a letter that goes with it. They will be grouped by decades. Visitors will see how they change over the years - graphically, artistically and historically. As we get into the 1850s and 1860s, we see that they begin to get mass-produced as opposed to hand-crafted.
What did mass production of Valentine’s Day cards look like during this time? They were made in a workshop, almost like an assembly line, and usually done by ladies who would have a bunch of materials around them to make the cards. It wasn’t a machine or assembly line like you’d see today. The ladies got to pick and choose the materials as they assembled them. There’s a certain element of style that’s all the same, but there is also a lot of variety and small elements that are different.
How did the inkwork vary over the years? Mostly all of the older Valentines were hand-done and the writing on them is in ink calligraphy. In the 1930s, there was copper-plate printing. Images were printed as an outline, the same as you would see in a newspaper, then hand-water colored with other pieces added to it, such as gold or silver paper trim, dried flowers and embellishments like that.
When did we start to see manufacturers use modern-day practices to create Valentines? When we move into the 1870s and 1880s, they created mechanical Valentines. You’ll see layers to them and wheels that spin, and hidden messages were a big thing. It’s hard sometimes to put yourself into the mind of a suitor. I like to think that they were thinking, “I want to tell her I love her, but I don’t want her dad to get bent out of shape.” The messages were hidden, and the boy could tell the girl where to look.
Did Valentines ever go above and beyond in meaning? Valentines were proposals, and often had a gold ring in the paper. There were even proposals for elopements. One of the most interesting is a Valentine from 1820 that was a puzzle purse. They would tell people’s futures by sharing messages on the sides of them. A tab or silk cord would allow it to expand. It’s all paper engineering. I like that time period because they were very clever with their structure and design.
What have been some of your favorites from your collection? In the 1900s to 1920s, the most popular Valentines were fold-down or fold-out Valentines. They were mechanical, creating a very three-dimensional piece. Simple ones had two layers and more complicated ones had six or seven layers. These allowed you to look through the 3D piece and were very fragile. They were usually made in Germany at this point in time and the background of the card was printed separately. Workers picked the images and assembled them with flowers. These are some of my favorites because they are very elaborate and come in all different shapes, from taxis and boats to carriages, children, birds and angels.
When did school Valentines become popular? In the 1930s to 1950s, most of the Valentines we have are school Valentines. Before that, Valentines were for adults. Into the 1950s, kids began exchanging them at school and building Valentine boxes for classmates. Some of them that are my favorites from that time period are homemade ones from the 1930s. They tell a story of those people badly affected by depression and those who still had money. You can see each of the classes in the Valentines they gave to each other.
Do any of the class Valentines stand out to you? One that sticks out in my mind is a small Christmas card that was recycled for a Valentine’s Day card. I find those very poignant. That’s what that kid had to give. Some others are cut out of catalogs and others are nice commercially made pieces from the time. It really shows the stratification of classes during the Great Depression. World War II Valentines depicted what was going on in the war. Some were sent from camps where soldiers were stationed up until they were deployed. Some sent them to wives, and the return address is a camp or APO. So those are always interesting. The historian in you always wonders if that is the last card that she got and if he made it home.