Even with the advent of e-cards, there’s no substitute for the feeling of opening a greeting from the one you love in your own two hands on February 14.
Whether store-bought or hand-made, Valentine’s Day cards for centuries have been the most popular way to show the object of your affection you care.
A selection of antique and vintage Valentine’s Day cards donated from local collections are now on display at the Jaffrey Civic Center through Feb. 27. The exhibit is a joint effort between the civic center and the Jaffrey Historical Society — treasurer Karl Putnam is one collector who donated Valentine’s Day postcards from a late family member’s album.
The vast majority of these antique cards are in pristine condition and look as fresh and new as they did when they were gifted.
Americans spend as much as $19.6 billion on Valentine’s Day cards and gifts, but behind the commercialization of this holiday is a history that can be traced back to ancient Rome. From the 13th to the 15th of February, ancient Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia, a fertility festival. Some historians have argued that at the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I declared Feb. 14 to be Valentine’s Day in an attempt to reclaim this festival from the Romans and Christianize it.
It’s not clear which St Valentine this day was initially dedicated to, as two saints with this name share the feast day of Feb. 14. Both of these saints were martyred in Rome; Valentine of Terni in around 197 A.D. and Valentine of Rome in around 496 A.D.
The first Valentine’s cards were created in the 18th century. At first, they were handmade as pre-made cards were not yet available. Lovers would decorate paper with romantic symbols including flowers and love knots, often including puzzles and lines of poetry. There were volumes that offered guidance on selecting the appropriate words and images to woo a lover. These cards were then slipped secretly under a door or tied to a door knocker.
In the early 19th-century, the industrialization of England brought with it rapid advances in printing and manufacturing technologies. It became easier than ever to mass-produce Valentine’s cards, which soon became immensely popular.
By the mid-19th century, the Valentine’s card travelled across the Atlantic and rapidly gained popularity in America. In 1913, Hallmark Cards produced its first Valentine’s card.
The display at the civic center shows a bit of the evolution of the Valentine card. Early Victorian valentines (1850 through 1880) featured elements such as die-cut paper lace, pieces of silk fabric and ribbon, flowers and leaves made of silk or paper, and even human hair. The oldest valentines in the exhibit date back to around 1880.
Later Victorian-era valentines (1880s through 1900), which were easier to mass produce, were lithographed and featured hearts, birds, cherubs and flowers, and were often pop-up cards with honeycomb paper inside and poetic greetings. Some fine examples of valentines from these time periods are available for viewing at the civic center. They are works of art in and of themselves and made attractive displays on their own, making them seem less disposable.
The exhibit also features some mid-19th century valentines, in basic two-dimensional style with even more clever messages. A highlight is a card with an image of a majorette in a short skirt and boots that reads: “Don’t skirt around the subject, dear/Just say the words I long to hear.”
While the display offers a very useful history lesson, exhibit curator Karen Ayers believes the exhibit is valuable for other reasons.
“We all need a little joy right now,” she said, referring to being in the midst of a long winter quarantine. “This is a nice reason to get out.”
“Valentines: A History of Love” is on display at Jaffrey Civic Center through Feb. 27. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit jaffreyciviccenter.com.