By Roy Nuhn
Of all the holidays Americans have celebrated over the last two centuries, none can compare to the special place that Valentine’s Day holds in the hearts of lovers. During the height of the picture postcard mania, from 1904 to about 1917, thousands upon thousands of different lovely and beguiling Valentine’s Day postcards were published. They were made in so many varieties that collectors specializing in them find it an impossible task to acquire every kind.
Charming, relatively low-priced, these colorful tokens of love are very popular nowadays with collectors.
Romantic valentine postcards are very reminiscent of ordinary valentines of the same era. Both styles have cupids, romantic couples, and illustrations of children in amusing or flirtatious situations. The most sought after have drawings done by Samuel L. Schmucker for the John Winsch Company, Frances Brundage for Gabriel & Sons, and Ellen Clapsaddle for International Art.
Mechanical types, such as the kinds where little boys or girls actually deposit valentines into mailboxes to each other, or faces of different lovers appear in a small box by turning a dial on the side of the card, are runaway favorites today.
Also very collectable are the novelties with soft plush hearts, real lace, and attached envelopes with love notes inserted. Most top quality valentine postcards are heavily embossed, often with simulated gold and silver.
Those with large, colorful kaleidoscopes of plush silk panels are especially desirable. As are cards embellished with honeycomb paper puffs that blossom into bumblebees, flowers, and hot-air balloons when untied; and mechanicals that come with a lever that, when operated, make magical things happen – like heads turning, wheels revolving, hands with bouquets of flowers moving up and down, birds fluttering their wings, and ships at sea rocking to and fro.
Sets of six, eight or twelve postcards portray the adventures of Cupids. Lovely women, adorable children, and sweet-faced angles inhabit the illustrations of these cards, as well as birds, and all sorts of symbols of love and devotion.
But Cupid is far and away the most often seen inhabitant on Valentine’s Day postcards. A mean-spirited deity in ancient times, Cupid evolved into a sort of patron Saint for lovers early in the Christian era. Down to our own time it has been his appointed task ever since to help love along whenever he could. For Valentine’s Day postcards he was a natural.
Both foreign and domestic publishers delighted in producing postcards for the holiday with Cupid as the central character. International Art Publishing Company, located in New York City from the 1890s to the advent of World War I, was one of America’s largest paper novelty and greeting card publishers. It specialized in holiday greetings and their Valentine cards frequently featured Cupid. The company’s embossed, strikingly colored and well-designed offerings were among the best.
One series, for instance, shows the jolly little fellow making hearts on a blacksmith’s forge; another marvelously depicts Cupid traveling via different modes of transportation. Even Ellen Clapsaddle, the firm’s most important artist, drew Cupids into her postcards.
Another popular artist, Ethel Dewees, contributed to the Cupid Valentine’s Day lore with illustrations for the publishing house of AMP. There were also some lovely cupid designs to be found amongst the various cards done by the German firm of Paul Finkenrath, which exported huge amounts of postcards into the United States in the early years of the century. Cupid is also well represented on many of the Valentine’s Day postcards by Nash, one of the most prolific of holiday theme publishers.
Artist Charles Twelvetrees’ Series Number 75, “National Cupid,” for Ullman Manufacturing Co. (New York City), consisted of 12 cards showing Cupids in national costumes (United States, Canada, China, etc.). Twelvetrees’ Cupids are also seen in his many magazine illustrations done between 1908 and the late 1930s.
Many other cards portrayed Cupid flying above lovers with his bow and arrow at the ready, and playing all sorts of mischievous games. Though the Ullman set of “National Cupid” remains among the most wanted of all, many other desirable sets were also made.
About 50 publishers in the United States, and a smaller number in England, Austria, France and Germany, provided Americans with all the Valentine’s Day postcards they needed, but about a dozen companies dominated the industry.
The firm of Raphael Tuck & Sons, headquartered in London but with branches all around the world, imported dozens of different valentine sets to us through their New York City office. All were part of Tuck’s “Valentines” line and included such diverse subjects as comic strip heroes Little Nemo and Buster Brown. Tuck was one of the leaders in producing huge amounts of valentine postcards for everyone to exchange, not just lovers.
Their illustrations were exquisite, and among the loveliest or most interesting to be found. Today they are considered to be some of the very best ever printed for the holiday. At the peak of their popularity there were probably more Tuck Valentine’s Day postcards on sale in this country than those made by any other company.
Other important foreign publishers of picture postcards for the American Valentine’s Day market were Paul Finkenrath of Berlin; Ernest Nister, also German, whose valentines and other paper goods were handled in this country by the large New York City firm of E. Dutton; and Valentine & Sons, from Great Britain.
Notable U.S. printers, besides International Art and E. Nash, included the venerable Whitney Company of Worcester, Massachusetts, which had been so instrumental in introducing hand and machine-made valentines to the American public in the 19th century; and Birn Brothers, creator of patriotic-theme valentine postcards.
The vast majority of the better quality valentine postcards and almost all holidays were printed by chromolithography. Retail prices varied. The Tuck cards ranged from a penny each up to 15¢ for the novelties. These included large embossed silk flowers, embossed silk pansies, heads of women in medallions surrounded by embossed silken blossoms, feather fans and inlaid frames for photographs.
Today quality valentine postcards command prices from 25¢ to $25 each; more for certain extraordinary items. These prices are reasonable, though, when compared to those of old Victorian and Edwardian valentines. Comparatively low prices, startling beauty, and good availability are what make yesteryear’s valentine postcards so attractive and popular with today’s collectors.