There is no other day like Valentine’s Day. It is a day in which we are strongly encouraged—by tradition, by our peers, by merchandisers and greeting card manufacturers—to express our positive feelings for another person. Generally, these feelings relate to love, affection, friendship. Valentine’s Day cards are an easy way to communicate one’s feelings, preventing the sender from having to say these things in person. Often we find—in the plethora of cards available today ranging from humorous to “hot”—that the sentiment written in the card expresses exactly what we want to say better than if we’d said it in person.
Valentine’s Day cards have long served this purpose. During the late 1800s, most of these cards were frilly, draped with images of cherubs, birds, and flower garlands, and dripping with sweet sentimental verses. Intended to be sent to family members or sweethearts, these fit the moral tone and maudlin sentimentality of the era.
It’s February, and with Valentine’s Day around the corner, many people’s thoughts turn to expressions of undying love and devotion delivered via beautiful and touching cards. However, from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries, some cards took a different slant. Known commonly as “vinegar valentines,” these satirical cards delivered insults ranging from the mild to the extremely offensive. We’ve just digitized about 10 examples of vinegar valentines from our collection, including this highly unflattering rejection note. Watch for an upcoming post on our blog from curator Donna Braden for more information about this phenomenon, or peruse the digitized vinegar valentines now by visiting our digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
We’re already missing the holidays here at The Henry Ford, and so have turned our thoughts to another upcoming occasion: Valentine’s Day. Curator of Photographs and Prints Cynthia Miller pored over our extensive collection of Valentine’s Day postcards and greeting cards, and selected a number that we’ve just digitized. One particularly interesting example is this card featuring a chubby-cheeked and large-hatted young suffragette. If you’re in the mood for love, visit our collections site to see more Valentines—or if you’re more interested in the political message than the romance, check out other objects from our collections related to women’s rights.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager
Love Tokens in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries
As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, many of us eagerly anticipate tokens of affection from our loved ones. These may take the form of a simple Valentine card, flowers or perhaps, chocolates. The luckier among us may receive something more expensive and lasting, such as a piece of jewelry. Jewelry presented as an expression of love has a long historical precedent and is well represented in the collections of The Henry Ford.
The most fascinating form of jewelry created as a love token started as what we would describe as a “fad” in the late 18th century. Today we might consider these disembodied eye portraits as bizarre or jarring. But they get at the heart of the very private nature of the intensity of feelings between two people, by means of an individualized portrait of a beloved’s eye. The idea was that a sweetheart would be reminded of their lover’s watchfulness. Throughout human history eyes have always symbolized mirrors to the soul. They are as intimate a token as two people could find.
The story begins with British royalty. In 1784, George, the Prince of Wales, son of George III, later to become the Prince Regent, eventually George IV, became enamored of a young Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, whom he was forbidden to marry, both by law and by his father. Against her wishes, he pursued her. Recognizing the impossibility of the match, she fled to France for a year, believing that her absence would lessen the Prince’s amorous feelings. To the contrary, the Prince became more infatuated and more determined to marry Mrs. Fitzherbert. At the end of the year he sent her a marriage proposal. Instead of including a ring, he sent a miniature portrait of his eye. Apparently, she was so taken with his gift that she immediately returned and married the Prince in a secret ceremony, late in 1785. Shortly after the marriage, Maria commissioned the same miniature artist to paint a portrait of her eye for her new husband. This created a fashion among British aristocrats for eye portraiture. Of course, when King George III discovered the illegal marriage, he immediately annulled it. Thus, the eye portraits became even more important as symbols of intimacy and perhaps, forbidden love. As a coda to the story, although forced to marry another, George remained in contact with Maria for the rest of his life. It is said that George is buried with Maria’s eye portrait.
The popularity of eye portraits extended beyond the shores of the British Isles. In France, they took on political connotations and were said to function as discreet symbols for meetings of revolutionaries. Few eye portraits were made for Americans – they were associated with the hated British monarchy in the decades following the Revolution. Today, scholars estimate that there are no more than 1,000 of these tiny pins extant.
This eye portrait, when magnified, appears to be a male. The carelessly drooping hair of the eyebrow appears to be a characteristic associated with a man. A lady would have presented herself in a much more genteel manner. We will never know the identity of this person. That is the essential enigma of the piece – and of eye portraits in general.
The Henry Ford jewelry collection holds a number of other, less obvious love tokens. Roughly contemporaneous with the eye portrait, these tokens were likely shared between lovers while alive, and after the death of one likely served as a memorial pin. This oval pin portrays a young lady carrying a wreath, a symbol of eternity, to an altar with the inscription “To Love.” On the altar are two cups, perhaps loving cups. Above, two birds hold a loosely knotted ribbon or string binding them together. Perhaps the most telling element of the piece is the inscription on the back reading “My love is true to none but you.”
The imagery on these pins also seems to relate to love tokens, visually suggesting that “my heart burns for you.” They are painted in different styles; the image at the left is much more finished. The image at the right has the inscription “Sincerity” on the altar.
In the centuries before the development of modern medicine, death came quickly and often. Because of this fact, the line between tokens of affection and mourning pieces became blurred. In most cases, love tokens hold signs and symbols legible only to the couple. We will never fully understand the meaning of these pieces. Unlike mourning jewelry, they do not give us names, initials or dates of the deceased.
Moving somewhat forward in time, snake motifs were popular with Victorians and are often seen on bracelets. Like wreaths, the snake was a symbol for eternity. The fact that this piece holds a plaited snippet of human hair indicates that it may have served as a memorial. The red cut stone, perhaps a garnet, was a favorite of the Victorians in both mourning and non-mourning jewelry. Consequently, it is likely that the piece was produced as gift and continued as a memorial piece.
In all, The Henry Ford’s jewelry collection holds some remarkable tokens of affection, most notably the eye portrait, but also several enigmatic pieces of the early 19th century.
This time of year I feel so nostalgic about activities surrounding Valentine's Day! I fondly recall making cards for my mother on construction paper by coloring with crayons. Many looked a lot like this one in the museum's collections.
I also have many happy memories of exchanging cards with my classmates in elementary school, especially cutouts featuring kids or animals.
Valentine, "Bank of True Love," circa 1852. Richard Marsh of 374 Pearl St., New York City printed this Valentine in the form of a promissory note. It shows a view of lovers seated in a garden at the top and Cupid on the right with the text, "State of Matrimony." ID THF99107 / 89.0.540.683.
Cutout Valentine, "Radio Me and I'll Radio You," circa 1920. A mechanical card with moving arms and heads shows a girl and a boy with radio sets sending messages to each other. It is signed on the back, "Llewellynne From Aunt Ida." ID THF99109 / 89.72.1
Three-Dimensional Valentine, "To Greet My Love," circa 1910. Card opens out completely to form a tissue bell. It is signed on the back, "From Dufur to Eva Lena." ID THF99115 / 90.234.19.
This year I searched our collections for more selections of valentines and found some surprises. I happened to find several which struck me as a quite unique. One is designed to look like a promissory note, picture above, from a bank in the 1850s. Another is a cutout card featuring kids playing with radio equipment in the 1920s - then the latest technology! The third example is a card that folds out to form an elaborate 3D tissue bell.
Photographic print, Girls' Club Valentine Dance and Ford Plant Engineering Party, Dearborn, Michigan, February 14, 1947. Joseph Farkas was the Ford Motor Company photographer. ID THF99127 / P.833.83934.2.
Cabinet photograph, Cyclist Eugene Valentine with Bicycle and Medals, 1887. It was photographed by J. Wood of 208 Bowery, New York City. Signed on the back "Yours truly, Eugene Valentine, Dec 29, 1887." ID THF206673 / 18.104.22.168
Then I came across this photo of a Valentine's Day Party. It is identified as a Girls' Club Valentine Dance, but they look like ladies and a gentleman to me. The room is decorated with crepe paper streamers and a large heart-shaped doorway. The sign above the doorway reads, "Kiss Me!"
My searches also came up with a man named Eugene Valentine. Once I saw this I realized that Valentine is indeed a last name, not just a romantic holiday. The name is from the Latin "Valentinus" based on "valere," meaning to be strong. In the British Isles, it has been recorded from medieval times as a first and then a last name with many different spellings, including Valentyn, Vallentine, and Valentine.
I also found a business named Valentine-Souvenir Company of New York City. There are several dozen postcards made by this company in our collections, but not one is a Valentine card. It turns out this company was formed from several later mergers of the founding company started by John Valentine of Dundee, Scotland, in 1825. The original Valentine Company made lithograph prints before starting to produce postcards in 1896. From 1914 to 1923 the Valentine-Souvenir Company of New York City printed postcards using the letterpress halftone color printing process.
Postcard - "Band Stand over Lagoon, Belle Isle, Detroit, Mich.," circa 1915, Valentine-Souvenir Co. ID THF99105 / 22.214.171.124
I think that any search for Valentine's Day cards needs to include heart shapes as a design motif. In addition to the cards, I expected to find jewelry, dishes and quilts to have heart motifs, but here's something unexpected: a forerunner of the bicycle made with heart shapes cut out of the wooden wheels.
Velocipede, Draisine, attributed to a German maker, circa 1818. German Baron Karl von Drais invented the Draisine in 1817. Operators of this human-powered vehicle sat astride the wooden rail and pushed off with their feet. This early velocipede or hobby horse can be said to be the first bicycle. THF108100 / 32.161.1