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The Peculiar History of Love in Valentine Ephemera from the 18th Century to Today

Nowadays, store-bought Valentines cards may dominate the ways we tell people we love them in writing, but in the past the diversity of notes reveals different ideas about love.

Cobweb valentine card, unfolded to reveal a mouse in a trap (ca.1830-1860) (all images courtesy The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens)

Flowers wilt and chocolate boxes inevitably empty, but a written note that expresses love can last centuries, if not longer. For over four decades, the collector Nancy Rosin amassed an enormous trove of paper valentines created between 1684 and 1970. Now, just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has announced that it has acquired her unique collection.

Pinpricked and hand-painted devotional card (ca.1750)

Donated by Rosin’s family, The Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera is considered the “best private collection of its kind in the world,” according to the Huntington. It comprises about 12,300 traces of exchanged intimacy, from friendly greetings to arduous affirmations of desire, conveyed through well-preserved cards of all kinds.

Included are carefully handcrafted cards, from Pennsylvania-German folded love tokens to cobweb cards — named for their delicate paper spirals that lift to form a cage and reveal a hidden message. (One that Rosin collected opens to show something very curious: a dangling mouse.) There are 18th-century lace-trimmed, devotional cards hand-cut by French and German nuns, who sold these to raise money. There are also — to diversify the collection’s messages — vinegar valentines, those nasty cards that Victorians sent to people they disliked. Here’s a taste of a savage one sent from a moralistic scribe:

On each Sunday morning to church you repair, And turn up your nose with a sanctified air, But see you at home what a different sight, As you read nasty books and drink gin half the night, While you ne’er give poor people enough for a dinner, You hypocritical wicked old Sinner.

Sometimes simply playful or sarcastic, vinegar valentines exemplify the variety of material Rosin’s collection offers.

“It is without a doubt the best in private hands in terms of quality and range within its focus — to say nothing of the sheer wonder and delight the items provide,” the Library’s Curator of Graphic Arts and Social History David Mihaly said. “Pull a string and an ingenious cobweb device lifts to reveal a mouse in a trap; unfold a die-cut valentine and watch a majestic carriage spring to life in 3-D; read a witty poem and realize it’s a hilarious jab at a Victorian-era politician; look closely at a tiny, centuries-old card and see it was delicately perforated with hundreds of tiny pinpricks, and hand painted so expertly.”

The Library will now research and process the collection, and while there are no current plans to display the objects, curators hope to organize an exhibition dedicated to them in the coming years. For now, those planning to send a loved one a special Valentine’s card can draw some inspiration from these centuries-old tokens.

Folded cobweb valentine card (ca.1830-1860)
Fold-open valentine card with applied elements (ca.1900)
Bouasse-Lebel, “Couronne de Douleurs Couronne de Gloire [Crown of Sorrows Crown of Glory]” (ca.1847-1860)
Pennsylvania-German fraktur labyrinth, inscribed 1824
“Vinegar” valentine card (ca.1855)
Interior of “vinegar” valentine card (ca.1855)
Civil War Valentine card, inscribed February 14, 1863
Civil War Valentine card, unfolded to reveal a soldier, inscribed February 14, 1863
Opened Civil War valentine card, inscribed February 14, 1863
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