History of Valentine's cards revealed at exhibit's opening


Decorated with a lamb and a cherub, one Valentine from the mid-19th century reads, "If you will be my Valentine, forget me not, forget me never, till yonder sun shall set forever." The card now belongs to Ilse Vliet, a collector of historical Valentine's Day cards.

Despite being a self-described "Christmas person," Vliet has a unique collection of St. Valentine's Day cards dating back as far as the early 19th century. Her collection is currently on display at East Jersey Olde Towne Village.

As a slideshow displayed some of her more memorable pieces, Vliet spoke Sunday at the exhibit's opening reception about the popular holiday tradition of exchanging cards with loved ones and sometimes not-so-loved ones.

"You know what a penny Drexel is? ... They're comic Valentines you sent to people you didn't like," Vliet said.

But she doesn't have any of these rare disposable cards.

"If you didn't like someone, you could go to the candy store and buy one. They were real cheap ... and they were comic figures that would say nasty things on them," Vliet said.

Vliet's collection did include dozens of handmade pieces with lace and paper honeycomb, cards with pop-up sections and chromolithographs, or colorful pictures on cardstock from 19th century Germany. Her collection includes cards from about the 1840s to the 1930s.

"We're fortunate to have her ... When we do these exhibits, we have to track down the artifacts. And she gets new ones every year, so each year there is something new," said Mark Nonesteid, the director of programs at East Jersey Olde Towne Village.

Although cards dating back to the Middle Ages have been found, the tradition of mass-produced Valentines began around the middle of the 19th century, first in Europe and then in the United States. Vliet said an artist named Ester A. Howland began to sell the first mass-produced cards in the United States.

Today, Valentines are the second most popular seasonal cards, according to The Greeting Card Association. About 1 billion are sold per year.

"It parallels the print technology," Nonesteid said. "They were able to mass produce them and make them available to a larger society."

He said in the post-American Civil War era, postcards were also very popular. There is a specific group of Valentine cards from this era resembling postcards. Nonesteid said some of them are very elaborate.

"[Valentine's Day cards] peak right around the 1920s as far as elaborate decoration," Nonesteid said.

But while the practice of exchanging cards printed on cardstock is only a few centuries old, the holiday dates back to the Romans.

Vliet said in the third century, when the Emperor Claudius II needed more troops for war, he forbade all the young men from getting married.

"He believed marriage made men want to stay home with their wives," she said. "However, there was a priest or bishop named Valentine, and he secretly married young couples."

She said he was arrested and put to death on Feb. 14. The holiday became associated with courtly and romantic love during the Middle Ages.

Vliet said the symbols associated with Valentine's Day are also Roman. Cupid was the son of Venus, Roman god of love and beauty. The heart, she said, was believed to contain the soul.

"Sometimes when you see older people, they say, 'It touches my heart.' But you know they mean the soul," Vliet said.


Michelle Cerone

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