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[whitespace] Card Share and Cherub Alike: Yesterday's sentimental greeting cards have become today's romantic collectibles.

Be Mine

A curmudgeon's chronicle of America's love affair with the Valentine's Day card

By Sarah Phelan

WHEN I WAS a teenage girl growing up in London, I was desperate to receive a Valentine's card. Sadly I never did. This was not because my classmates hated me. They did not, especially. My lack of cards stemmed from the harsh reality that in England, Valentine's Day is not about love. It's about lust and malice--and as such is far more brutal than its saccharine American counterpart.

In the England that I remember, people mostly sent one of two categories of cards. One was adoring, almost bordering on groveling--as in step-on-me-I-am-your-worthless-slave. The other was cruel and insulting, as in no-amount-of-money would-ever-persuade-me-to-kiss-you, you-loathsome-toad, otherwise known as a Vinegar Valentine.

To add an element of mystery, senders typically did not sign their cards, though they might include a couple of handwritten lines, thereby giving the object of their affection or disdain a clue as to the sender's identity. For instance, and I quote:

    Each day I see you as I await the bus
    will you ever see me, my valentine puss?

Now, it's true that "bus," unless enunciated in a North of England accent, more closely rhymes with "pus." And as such is entirely in keeping with the teasing nature of Valentine's Day, a direct descendant of a bawdy pagan fest. Besides, what teenager isn't pimply faced and plagued with self-doubt? Which was precisely why I, as a spotty, angst-wracked teen, yearned to receive at least one card proving that I was desirable.

Instead, I was left empty-handed and heavy-hearted, while Anne Millson--who had long legs and a swishy pony tail and was indisputably the biggest bitch in my all-girls' high school--pranced around, bragging about the half-dozen Valentines she'd received, even as she dissected poor Jonathan Bigley, who had made the unfortunate mistake of signing the following declaration:

    If anyone should mention you
    and ask me if I love you true
    Then I'd be happy through and through
    to shout, "I'll tell the world I do!"

"Tell him his face looks like a baked potato," said Anne, a command immediately executed by one of her malevolent cronies. Yes, Valentine's Day was truly ruthless.

Fast-forward two decades. By this time I'm divorced with two small kids and newly settled in the United States, where, as I discover when my daughter starts school, even first-graders receive Valentines. Am I thankful that my kids will not have to go through the same psychological torment as I did? That they could relax in the knowledge that everyone likes them?

Of course not. Instead, I am incensed that my daughter's teacher has pressured us parents into making our offspring handwrite cards to every single class member, regardless of whether they like all the other kids, thus further bolstering the mighty Hallmark empire.

Valentine's Day Card Leather and Lace

IRONICALLY, were it not for its commercial possibilities, Valentine's Day would have long since died out along with Druid fire festivals and rainmaking ceremonies. The market for Valentine's cards first took off in the early 19th century when England introduced the Penny Post. Overnight, Feb. 14 became one of the postman's busiest days, but since the receiver paid the postage, recipients of rude Valentines could demand a refund, although no one quite knows how they broached the subject. (Hey, Mr. Postmaster, give me back my money. This Valentine you delivered says I'm ugly as mud.)

Cut to America, where immigrants from Germany and England have imported Valentine's Day to the New World, replacing Native American fertility dances with paper professions of love. Goodbye to the primal throbbing of drums in the woods; hello to the swishing of butter churns, girls in tightly buttoned blouses, praying their romances would thrive.

But it was young men who made the most of the early American Valentines. Eager to earn the hand of Sadie-on-the-farm-across-the-way, a suitor would slave for hours cutting out hearts of lace by hand and decorating his handiwork in watercolor or delicate ink work. Acrostic, cutout, pinprick, rebus and puzzle purse Valentines were all the rage in the English colonies, while German settlers favored ornamental lettering and tulips, birds and angels in bright primary colors. Many of these Valentines were more than flirtatious; they were sent as proposals of marriage.

Handmade Valentines remained popular into the 1880s, but the market for ready-made cards exploded when one postage rate was set in 1845 . To this day most folks believe that Joyce C. Hall, founder of the Hallmark empire, birthed the U.S. greeting card industry, but the truth is that a woman by the name of Esther Howland beat him to the post by 50 years.

In 1848, Esther, a stationer's daughter, made some cards along the lines of the lacy English Valentines her father had imported. Hoping to earn a few hundred dollars, she gave them to her brother, a traveling salesman. He took them along in his buggy on his next tour--and returned with $5,000 worth of offers.

Before long, Esther Howland had set up shop in one large room (successfully using assembly line methods long before Henry Ford), and staffing her entire operation with young girls. One of her annual orders was to provide one New York company with $25,000 worth of cards. Indeed, had Esther not sold her business to take care of her aged father, she might have become the queen of greeting cards.

As for Joyce Hall, he might never had made it big, if it hadn't been for World War I. When the 18-year-old entrepreneur arrived in Kansas, his entire inventory of cards fit into a single shoe box. True, he dreamed of marketing higher quality cards, but at the time the United States imported most of its Valentines from Germany. When war broke out in Europe, drying up the supply of cards, it opened up the way for Hall and his brothers. By 1923, Hall was able to take over into four separate buildings in a brand-new six-story plant and hire 120 employees.

The rest is history.

So this year as you contemplate those pink and red cards all smothered in hearts, flowers and mischievous Cupids, consider this: all antique cards, however commercial in their day, take on the nostalgic gloss of any romantic note from another era. Who knows? Perhaps that $2 Valentine's card you just picked up at the drugstore will be a collector's item someday.

With special thanks to Mr Goodie's Antiques and Collectibles for the use of the antique Valentine's Day cards.

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From the February 7-14, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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