I used to love Valentine’s Day.
In the store, I would pore over the aisle of cards, driving my mother crazy as I chose just the right intellectual property to summarize the feelings I had for each of my grade school classmates.
At home, I would sort through the box, determining which student would receive which card. The biggest, mushiest card would be reserved for Greg, the dreamiest boy in class.
And every year, Greg would respond with a card of his own. But while he would give Heather a Thundercats card declaring “I’d be Lion-O if I said I didn’t want you as my Valentine,” my painstakingly-selected Garfield card was reciprocated with something to the effect of “Tygra says ‘Have a good one.’”
I take it back. I didn’t love Valentine’s Day.
The history of Saint Valentine, who was likely martyred in the third century for marrying Christians during the reign of Claudius II, is a long and sordid one. It's suggested Valentine's feast day was celebrated in earnest, through expressions of love, after attempts were made to "Christianize" the mid-February pagan celebration of Lupercalia. It was a fertility celebration, so that may not seem like a big jump. But it was. Trust me.
By the Middle Ages, hand-made cards were commonly shared as tokens of affection. In the early 1800s, cards were produced in factories, and by the end of the century, they were made entirely by machine. By the early 1900s, Hallmark was mass-producing the little paper love letters.
And while the company that popularized the card continues to distribute them, there were a wide range of other cardmakers in the early twentieth century creating and selling cards. Many of them have fallen by the wayside, but their work lives on in those vintage Valentines uncovered in estate sales and antique malls and coveted by collectors.
There are a few major differences between vintage and modern-day valentines.
Aesthetic. While the Valentine aisle today can feel like an assault on the eyes, vintage valentines all seem to carry subdued tones. There is an artistry in them that I suspect today’s cards will not carry when collectors search for cards from this era when it, too, is bygone.
Marketing. Admittedly, I may just be jaded, but most card choices today are dictated by popular movies and TV shows. In the past, options, as far as media is concerned, were limited, so inspiration had to be drawn from elsewhere. That’s not to say media-themed cards didn’t exist. As early as the 1930s, Walt Disney's characters made valentine appearances. Li'l Abner characters, among others, could be found on cards in the 1940s. But it would take a few more decades before the Valentine selection would be overrun by your children's favorite television shows and movies.
Affection. Most contemporary cards produced for distribution among classmates essentially translate to a figurative chuck on the shoulder. One could argue that makes today's cards more appropriate, as a student doesn't need to express romantic interest to each of her 30 classmates, all of whom require a card.
Cultural sensitivity. Some of those vintage cards are flat out offensive.
And while most of the sentiments in those aging, lacy cards are sweet—bashful entreaties, expressions of admiration, hope for reciprocation—there are quite a few that took dark or confusing turns.
Let’s take a look back at a few of the more interesting cards you might find hiding in a dusty box at a tag sale, many with themes you’re not going to find in today’s cards...hopefully.
Say it with Misogyny
I’m pretty sure giving a young lady a card like this would result in a restraining order rather than a date.
You know, there are a surprising number of Valentine cards expressing the desire to keep women in subordinate positions. After all, modern men of the 1910s couldn't possibly get themselves entangled with women who saw themselves as *shudder* equal. So the suffragette movement was frequently portrayed in shareable cards, becoming essentially late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century memes. They were cautionary tales. Women were either portrayed as pie-faced children or old, unattractive, bebunned spinsters. A woman seeking equal footing is not the marrying kind, apparently.
It doesn't quite put one in the mood for snuggling, does it?
Fifty Shades of No Way
Now this is just getting ridiculous.
Listen, I understand being attracted to a powerful person. But maybe not absolute power?
Particularly disturbing is the fact that, according to the Vintage Valentine Museum, this was made around 1940, which would land it smack in the middle of World War II.
And while there are certainly themes, imagery, and sentiments that would not pass muster on valentines today—racism and misogyny, and a surprising number of cards referring to cannibalism for some reason—one thing that remains is the liberal and cringeworthy use of puns.
Some things never change.
All images courtesy of the Vintage Valentine Museum, except "To A Suffragette Valentine," and "Votes for Women," which are from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.