These days, Hallmark estimates that 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged each year, not counting the children’s valentines that are popular for sharing in the classroom.
NEW YORK — It was Valentine’s Day It’s 1917 in the farming village of Lewiston, Minnesota, and Fred Roth, a fourth-grader, seems to have come up with a way to express his love to his sweetheart, Louise Wirth. He gave her the card.
Complicated, pop-up Valentine’s Day the card, stocked so heavy it’s still in good shape 106 years later, reads: “Don’t forget me!/I’m asking you/Reserving one place/In my heart for me.”
So she did. Years later, they married, and Louise displayed the treasured postcard for decades, tucked away in the sump of her bedroom dresser. She showed it to her daughter, and then to her granddaughter, me, and it remained by her bedside until her death at 91, as a sign of enduring love.
Although the message was in English, the map is printed with the word “Germany” and appears to be an import, like many maps of the era. Small companies in the US were also part of the booming commercial card business.
Hallmark, which began offering Valentine’s Day cards in 1913, estimates that 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged each year today, not counting the children’s valentines that are popular for sharing in the classroom.
Customs and rituals related to fertility have been celebrated in mid-February since pagan times, says Emelie Gevalt, curator of folk art and chair of collections curators at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York.
Tokens of affection varied: In the 1600s, it was customary to give a pair of gloves in mid-February, she says.
“By the 18th century, we start to see something that really starts to resemble modern valentines,” she says. “In the 19th century it developed to the point where popular women’s magazines such as Harper’s Weekly published instructions for readers on how to make them.”
There have long been both sincere, sincere Valentines, like in Grandpa Fred, and Valentines in a more humorous vein.
The museum’s collection includes a number of lovingly crafted tokens of affection from various periods. “You often see the heart motif,” says Gevalt.
Although not specifically tied to Valentine’s Day, the museum’s exhibit, which opens March 17, “Material Witness: Folk and Self-Taught Artists at Work,” features two examples of “fractures,” richly decorated watercolors, made by German immigrants in Pennsylvania. One is called “Inverted Heart” and the other depicts a maze.
“They were really dazzling pieces, including flower or heart motifs. The playfulness and intelligence of these objects is one of the most interesting aspects that unite them,” says Gevalt.
In the mid-19th century, some people shared “Vinegar Valentines,” a sort of anti-Valentine’s that contained humorously offensive verses not unlike modern roasts.
Sometimes the cards were written in a circle or upside down like a puzzle. Some had a decorative folded border or vertices on the folds; a resume that resembles lace; or watercolor decorations with pierced hearts, lovebirds and flowers. Lover’s knots and labyrinths were also frequent elements.
“They remind me of games, like plucking the petals of a flower, saying, ‘She loves me, she doesn’t love me,'” says Gevalt.
The boom in commercial Valentine’s Day cards in the mid-1800s reflected changing courtship patterns, says Elizabeth White Nelson, assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“The idea of marriage and love together became part of the marriage settlement, and Valentine’s Day cards became part of the courtship,” she says.
Maps continue to evolve these days.
“Over the past few years, trends have been less about romantic love and more about letting someone know they’re important,” says Jen Walker, vice president of trends and creative studios at Hallmark Cards, Inc.
There are “more inclusive visuals and a broader representation of relationships — love, chosen family, friendship, parents and children, self-care,” she says.
A bit of mystery surrounds my grandmother Louise’s treasured valentine. It would be out of character for Fred to buy a trading card instead of giving her, say, a bunch of willows he plucked.
“That period marked the beginning of the organized practice of exchanging valentines at school,” says Nelson. In some classes, everyone was required, or at least encouraged, to give valentines.
“Giving and receiving Valentines has always been about showing love to the audience,” says Nelson, “and once the Valentine’s Day card was preserved, it would become a talisman of everything that love should be.”