Friday, February 13, 2015

Will You Be My Valentine?

Postcard from Catherine North to
George W. Clark, Jr., 1907
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and in honor of the occasion, we’re featuring some Valentine cards from the Alice’s collection. Although Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in some form for a long time, cards are a relatively recent development.

Some authors have claimed that Valentine’s Day had its origins in the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, which was held in mid-February and was dedicated to fertility. In the fifth century, the Roman church is supposed to have co-opted this rite and turned it into a Christian festival in honor of several early Christian martyrs named Valentinus, celebrated on February 14. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence for a direct connection between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day, but over time various legends about “Saint Valentine” developed, including the belief that he was a priest who was imprisoned by the emperor for  performing secret marriages for soldiers in the Roman army. While in prison, he supposedly wrote a letter to the jailer’s daughter, which he signed, “Your Valentine.”

Postcard sent to
Mrs. George W. Clark,
The connection between Valentine’s Day and romantic love may have its origin in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules (1382), in which he wrote, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan eury bryd comyth there to chese his make”—that is, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” However, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion where lovers expressed their feelings for each other by presenting flowers and offering confectionery as well as sending hand written greeting cards. 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, hand written valentines started going out of fashion, giving way to mass-produced greeting cards, largely due to a British publisher who issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer (1797), which contained sentimental verses for someone unable to compose his or her own. Using these verses printing companies began producing a small number of cards that combined different images and verses, called “mechanical valentines.” These cards were so popular that by the early nineteenth century, “mechanical valentines” were being assembled in factories. In the United States, the first mass-produced Valentines were made in 1847 by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, who had received one of these English Valentines.

This mid-nineteenth century Valentine was given to Alice Miner in 1916 by Emma Hodge, who addressed it to her “Partner in all sorts of collecting.” The original inscription reads, “Were riches rank and power/This day within my grasp/I’d give them all to gain thy love/No greater bliss I’d ask.”

Emma Hodge gave this Valentine to “dear Miss Matilda Trainer,” also in 1916. The inscription reads, “All I have I freely offer thee,/My heart my hand my Liberty.” Both Valentines are about 8 by 10 inches, made of hand-painted floral embellishments applied to paper embossed with lace.

In the early twentieth century, Valentine postcards joined the more traditional Valentine cards. Prior to 1898, only the United States Postal Service could produce postcards, but once that prohibition ended, the postcard business boomed. The cards themselves were inexpensive, and could be mailed for only a penny. Valentine postals could be romantic, humorous, saucy, or even mean—so-called “Vinegar Valentines.” The postcards shown here were sent to George W. Clark Jr. (father of Dr. George Clark), his mother, and his sister Mattie between 1905 and 1907.

Thanks to Becca Belton for researching Valentine’s Day and scanning the cards for this post!

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