Historical society's valentines span earlier era

February 12, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Valentines in the collection at Miller House include 1850s-era cards. A letter inside this card was a plea by a woman to a local doctor for a marriage proposal. The last verse reads: "Dear Dr., I pray you do decide, Which of these Belles youll choose for Bride, Theyre loving and kind, gentle and fair, of Procrastination, do Beware." The letter was signed, St. Valentine 1850.
Photos by Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Cherubs, turtledoves and unabashedly romantic verse figured prominently in Victorian valentines.

But during the mid-1800s, Dr. Josiah Smith of Boonsboro received a card less given to gushing and more into rushing.

Authored by an anonymous young woman living in Washington, D.C., the handwritten message encouraged the gentleman to make up his mind in choosing his wife  —  and hopefully, he would choose her.

Whether she became his bride is a mystery.

But more than a 150 years later, the card and its sentiments have survived, offering a glimpse into expressions of love and courtship from another era — something the sender, simply signed St. Valentine, would never have imagined.

The card is among several dozen vintage valentines that can be found in the collection of the Washington County Historical Society. Currently, the valentines are not on display.

Spanning the decades — from the 1850s to the 1930s — some are embossed and die-cut into ornate patterns, while others are simpler in design.

But all have been lovingly preserved by their original owners and passed down with care, said Beth Levine, a volunteer who catalogs the society's collections.

Levine said many of the valentines were addressed to local residents, but others are without envelopes, "so while it is likely that the recipients were local at one time or another, it's not always possible to know from the card."

What they all have in common, she said, is a message of love.

"The older cards definitely show love, affection and romantic themes. There are flowers, hearts, cupids, die-cut lace, flourishes and tender mottos incorporated sometimes in great profusion," she said.

The Victorian-era valentines, in particular, are very ornate and colorful, Levine noted.

"When you see photographs from these times, there are shades of gray and the subjects often are somber. These cards prove that people from that era loved glorious color."

According to Levine, some of the valentines appear to be professionally hand-assembled, rather than mass-produced with bindery equipment. Many were printed in Germany.

There also are valentines that feature dimensional layers that were made to fold out "so they might be displayed in all their splendor," Levine said.

And on many of the cards, the senders have composed thoughtful, original love poems in verse.

"The poems respectfully express admiration, loyalty and affection," she said. "They are neatly and legibly written out with absolutely beautiful penmanship. The wonderful thing here is having the privilege of getting such a clear glimpse into the lives of ordinary people so far removed from us in time."

As an example, Levine shared, there are cards addressed to a Miss Eva (Evaline) Doyle "and are full of very earnest love poems postmarked, I believe, from Clear Spring. My own research shows that she became Mrs. Jerome McCleery and was 82 years old when she died in 1917. The mystery is whether she married the author."

While many of the cards from the 1920s and 1930s are not as ornate, Levine said they are charming in their period illustrations and captions.

"They seem to have been exchanged between family members — parents and children, as well as grandparents and grandchildren —  while those from the middle 1800s were exchanged between suitors and sweethearts," she explained.

The verses on the more modern valentines, Levine said, are printed on the card rather than original compositions.

Also included in the Washington County Historical Society's collection are valentine postcards, which became popular during the early 1900s.

The postcards were cutting edge technology for a new century and mailing them became a national fad.

Levine said the society's postcards are generally the same size as modern ones and were sent without an envelope.

"In choosing to send postcards, I surmise that they would be more economical to both mail and purchase," she said. "Sending postcards was also a common way to stay in touch with friends and relatives during a time when not everyone would have had a telephone — similar to a short email or text message but much more interesting and collectible then and now."

Levine said, without an envelope, the postcard's message would be for "any and all to see, so the sender would not be looking for any privacy."

Cathy Landsman, registrar with the Washington County Historical Society, isn't sure if the valentines have been exhibited.

But Levine hopes they might be on display in the future.

"It would be great to let people get a closer look at some of the treasures through an exhibit one day," she said.

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