Vintage Valentines: Part I

For as long as I can remember, my mom has collected antique ephemera, or paper goods. From Victorian calling cards and die cuts to cabinet cards, advertisements, photographs and magazines, she has managed to build quite the collection over the years. With the most romantic holiday of the year on the horizon, I thought it would be a fun treat to delve into her collection of vintage Valentines in a two-part post. Today, we’ll take a look at some of the early stuff.

IMG_4416The Victorian age is well known for its flair for the ornate and some of the best examples of that are Valentine’s Day greetings. Popular during the late 19th century until the early 1920s, these elaborate cards come in all shapes and sizes. The level of decoration and detail in each is really something that never fails to amaze me.





By today’s standards it’s hard to imagine this amount of intricacy in a frivolous disposable item. But in the context of Victoriana, with ornament upon pattern upon texture on nearly every surface of everything, these were par for the course.


IMG_4439Tiered pop-up styles like these feature a few pieces of lithographed die cuts mounted to a board that folds flat. At the time, chromolithography was the only method of mass producing colored art. The process involves etching images into stone plates that are used to make the impressions on paper. They are then die cut and usually embossed. The majority of printers were located in Germany.



This example has some interesting additions, including a honeycomb ball and red cellophane windows on the ship.


Often you’ll notice that the backgrounds are printed in fewer colors and with simpler graphics than the colorful embossed die cuts that adorn them. There’s a good reason for this.


Die cuts—also often called Victorian scrap—were more expensive to produce and were usually printed in bulk rather than commissioned specifically for any project or product. They were printed in large sheets of themed images, all in full color, embossed and die cut. One sheet might be all flowers, another might be cupids, children, animals, so on and so forth in limitless combinations. They could then be cut apart and used for anything—Valentines, greeting cards, calling cards or simply sold to consumers as scrap. For this reason you might see the same die cut on many different cards.

Same die cut, different cards

Same die cut, different cards

Same die cut, different card

Same die cut, different card

It’s also not uncommon to find the same card with nearly identical die cuts. This is likely because the die cuts came from the same sheet.

Same card, thematically similar but different die cuts

Same card, thematically similar but different die cuts


It could also be the reason they don’t always make sense. Or am I missing the symbology behind children with enormous mushrooms and Valentine’s Day?


The florid language can also be a fun read. And at least the phrase “Enshrined in my bosom thine image shall be…” helps us understand why there’s a creepy-faced cupid with a camera standing in the middle of a park.



At least in German it’s less sickeningly sweet

Since the die cuts were produced for many years after they were designed, it’s difficult to tell the age of any card based on the die cuts alone. These four cards have rather simple backgrounds that feel less Victorian. This could suggest they were produced later using die cuts from an earlier time.

IMG_4447Cards produced in England and the United States are usually thematically and stylistically quite different than German ones. The following two are probably later examples, into the 1910s.


A card produced in England


A honeycomb card produced in the U.S.

IMG_4468The honeycomb cards are a lot of fun, although they do break and fade very easily. Most of these were produced by the same U.S. company.

IMG_4462But you also see honeycomb in the older German cards.



You can’t see it in the photo, but there’s a lady’s head and a heart trapped in the “bubbles”


Some kind of love compass with mail shooting out the top?

But the best part of collecting these old mementos, is finding the little glimpses of the people who gave and received them over 100 years ago.


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