Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Valentines, Naughty and Nice, to the Huntington

Fraktur labyrinth. Pennsylvania, 1824. Gift of Belle and Robert Rosin. Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
The Huntington has been given a collection of about 12,300 antique valentines assembled by Nancy Rosin. The Rosin collection spans homespun declarations of love and elaborate works of lithography and paper engineering.

As "devotional ephemera" valentines tell stories left out of the history books. Consider the once-popular "vinegar valentines." Before Twitter, shaming and bullying were accomplished via the U.S. mail. Selling for a penny, vinegar valentines were caricatures accompanied by insulting verse. They were sent anonymously to spinsters, bachelors, unwelcome suitors, suffragettes, misers, drunks, dandies, obnoxious salespeople, and hypocritical church ladies. It's said that vinegar valentines once sold about as well as the regular kind. And for much of the 19th century, it was the recipient, not the sender, who had to pay the postage.

The one below folds up to reveal the pious churchgoer at home, drinking gin and reading trashy literature: "You hypocritical wicked old Sinner."
Vinegar valentine, American c. 1855. Gift of Belle and Robert Rosin. Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Above card, with flap lifted
Though not all the recipients were female, there must be an overlooked feminist history in these menacing holiday greetings. There were proto-feminist valentines as well, some sent to support women's suffrage. A card by illustrator Esther Howland, who pioneered the Victorian valentine aesthetic, contains the message: "I'll get married but not to you."
By Esther Howland, c. 1855. Gift of Belle and Robert Rosin. Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
German, c. 1900. Gift of Belle and Robert Rosin. Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Cobweb valentine, c. 1845. Gift of Belle and Robert Rosin. Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
"Cobweb valentines" were 3D sculptures activated by pulling a string. In the example at bottom, a castle morphs into a mouse in a trap.

A Huntington exhibition of the Rosin collection is in the planning stages. In the mean time Nancy Rosin has a website packed with information on valentines, and there are more images in The New York Times.
Probably British, 1830-1860. Gift of Belle and Robert Rosin. Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, Devotional Ephemera. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Above card, with string pulled.

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