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Victorian Valentines

Published in the illustrated newspaper Harper’s Weekly on February 22, 1868, Winslow Homer’s “St. Valentine’s Day - The Old Story in All Lands” equates the modern practice of sending and receiving valentines with the myth of eternal love. The illustration is a compilation of lovers throughout time and space, from ancient Rome to Meiji Japan, falsely suggesting that Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romantic love that has always existed. As this exhibition shows, the practice of exchanging valentines on February 14th was a distinctly modern tradition, first popularized in the United States in the 1840s.

Following practices previously developed in England, lovers, friends, and family members bought or made fanciful valentines decorated elaborately with paper lace, colorful printed materials, ribbons, hair, and scraps. Manufacturers of valentines, such as Esther Howland and George C. Whitney, played a crucial role in establishing Valentine’s Day as an American holiday. These same manufacturers often sold valentine writers, collections of short poems and affectionate messages meant to be copied verbatim, to aid the less poetically-inclined in wooing their beloved. Along with valentines themselves, these writers shaped the way Americans both expressed and experienced affection for one another.

Valentines were often sent anonymously, and a large part of the pleasure of receiving a valentine lay in identifying who sent it, discovering hidden images, solving a riddle, or decoding a message written in the language of flowers. Whether sent through the mail or handed directly to the recipient, valentines sought to dissolve the boundaries of time and place, in the pursuit of romantic love, friendship, or familial affection. They formed a powerful communication medium that impacted, and continues to impact, the human heart through their multisensory appeal.

Vinegar valentines, also known as comic valentines, had another purpose altogether: sent anonymously through the mail, these crudely designed cards were created for the purpose of mocking or shaming their recipient. They highlight how the celebration of Valentine’s Day reinforced dominant social norms through the collective performance of both love and hate.

This exhibition focuses on the traditions and myths of Valentine's Day by examining handmade and commercially produced love tokens from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, held at the American Antiquarian Society. From the intimate appeal of reading a beloved’s handwriting to the sheer delight of quickly sending and receiving anonymous messages through the mail, the celebration of what was originally a minor saint’s day connected lovers, friends, and enemies both close and far. The manner in which Homer’s central female figure lovingly grasps her valentine demonstrates the emotional bond that led first the original recipients, and then collectors, to preserve these fragile and generally inexpensive artifacts throughout the centuries.

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