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Collecting in the Heartland: Valentine Cards

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 11, 2009 - They can be as simple as a little cardboard cut-out of cartoon grasshoppers ("I'll Be Very Hoppy if You'll Be Mine"), or as wonderfully elaborate as a delicate piece of three-dimensional art, carefully decorated with accordion crepe and white ribbon.

For centuries, valentines have been universal symbols of love and friendship - between mother and child, brother and sister, husband and wife. In recent decades they have become increasingly coveted by collectors who search out yard sales, antique fairs and online auctions for these colorful pieces of romantic history.

Few items offer such a diverse range of collecting possibilities. A collector with a heart for valentines may decide to specialize in early hand-made pieces, 19th century English cards or German "transportation" cards featuring children riding in gaily embossed yachts, touring cars, balloons or airplanes.

He or she could decide to search out the dozens of varieties of character valentines - pieces depicting early movie stars, Walt Disney animated stars like Snow White and Mickey Mouse and a rare series from the MGM movie classic "The Wizard of Oz."

Still others may buy only valentines with golf themes, cooking themes, circus themes or space themes.

Valentine collecting can fit just about every budget. Some extremely rare vintage folk art cards can bring thousands of dollars, but literally thousands of vintage valentines can be had for less than a dollar each.

The first commercial valentines were made in London in the late 1700s by Kershaw, Canton & Lloyd.

Other important manufacturers included Esther Howland, William F. Charles, Thomas Bailey, McLaughlin Brothers and Louis Prang and Co., who commissioned the renowned Kate Greenway to design its cards, according to the guidebook "Holidays Toys and Decorations" by Margaret Schiffer.

In the U.S., Valentine's Day became popular during the Civil War and cards depicting that period can bring astonishing prices.

Nancy Rosin, of Franklin Lakes, N.J., president of the National Valentine Collectors Association, told the Beacon that she began collecting 40 years ago. Quickly, she said, she became immersed in "the historic aspects" of valentines. She says she has tried to assemble what she calls the "story" of valentines from their earliest days to the present. As her collection has grown, she said, her love for the holiday and for valentines in particular, has led her to research the traditions and the artists of the holiday.

"I felt," she said of her beloved valentines, "that they were under-appreciated and largely unknown, and deserved respect." She has more than 10,000 examples, which fill her home.

Information on becoming a member of the National Valentine Collectors Association may be obtained by e-mailing Rosin at NancyRosin@aol.com

In St. Louis, the Samuel Cupples House has a beautiful collection of vintage valentines, most of which were sent to Lillie McAllister, daughter of an employee of Samuel Cupples. Remarkably well preserved, the valentines date from 1885 to 1912. To see photographs of many of these pieces, click here .  

Rosin says valentine collections can be expanded beyond valentine cards to include "all kinds of expressions of love," such as candy boxes, Welsh love spoons, jewelry, silver or brass pieces and knitting sheaths. "For me, each valentine possesses special qualities which make it collectible," Rosin wrote in a recent article. "The primitive, the humorous, or the elegant - each has a special charm.

"When I hold one in my hand, I can feel transported to another era - and can imagine a perpetual Valentine's Day of love and regard."

Heartland Focus On:

Heart of Ohio Antique Center, 4785 East National Road, Springfield, Ohio, 937-324-2188, www.heartofohioantiques.com, Exit 62 at I-70 and U.S. 40.

This enormous mall is located in the midst of a major antiquing area, with two additional large malls and other smaller antique shops and regularly scheduled antique shows in the vicinity. The mall has a combination of locked showcases and nicely maintained antique booths, with a little bit of almost any type of antique or collectible one might seek. The asking prices tend toward the upper end, but good deals still can be found by the persistent shopper. Serious antiquers can spend at least a day-and-a-half among the three large malls in this area.

Goods range from furniture and glassware to advertising signage and toys to paper and metal collectibles. The mall also has a nice cafe with daily luncheon specials and a large number of antique and collectible reference books for sale.

A sampling of items and prices from 2008:

  • *Sonja Henie Heart and Skate Pin Set on original card: $16
  • *Chesterfield Cigarettes "They Satisfy" 3-dimensional tin litho thermometer: $150
  • Humphrey-Muskie "Leadership for the '70s" cardboard window political poster: $30
  • Figural metal chocolate molds (Santas, animals, Boy Scouts, etc.): $125 to $259
  • Marx G-Man Sparking Submachine Gun (toy) with partial box: $325