Three Centuries of Valentines Offer 12,000 Ways to Say ‘I Love You’

Paper Valentines spanning three centuries of optimism about romance have been delivered to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. The collection of about 12,000 cards was assembled over four decades by Nancy Rosin, a historian and collector in Franklin Lakes, N.J., whose family has donated it to the museum.

Mrs. Rosin spent up to thousands of dollars each for the Valentines, which were produced as early as the 1680s. Their motifs, aside from the expected hearts and Cupids, can seem unsentimental. Images of battlefield tents represented spaces where soldiers could carve out time to write to their sweethearts, and depictions of caged mice may symbolize a desire to keep beloveds captive.

“Love was expressed in so many ways,” said Mrs. Rosin, who also helps catalog valentines at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Inscriptions and names on the cards and envelopes sometimes make it possible to determine which correspondents ended up happily married and which broke up, said Mrs. Rosin. In some cases, she added, women would reject men who had spent too much money on elaborate Valentines.

CreditThe Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

A Civil War Valentine dated Feb. 14, 1863. The tent’s flaps open to reveal a soldier composing a love letter while envisioning his beloved.


CreditThe Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

A cobweb Valentine, probably British, circa 1830-60. A string lifts up the castle to reveal a mouse in a trap.


CreditThe Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

A card from about 1855 with a biting message: “I’ll get married but not to you.” It was created by Esther Howland, one of the most successful Valentine producers of the 19th century.


CreditThe Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

This German card from around 1900 folds open into a three-dimensional train.


CreditThe Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

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