Valentine tales

Valentines reveal much about the lifestyles of the various eras. Some show "proper" little children wearing Kate Greenaway coats and dresses; lacy ones of the 19th century with flower-laden bowers reflect the Victorian love of the lavish; contemporary ones often present "trendy" art nouveau styles. And all perpetuate centuries-old customs.

It all started during the month of February in the 200s, when toga-topped sons of pagan Romans played an intriguing game of love. In February, when the gods Pan and Juno were being honored, the Romans gathered before their temples to obtain scrolls.Eagerly, each young man unfurled his scroll, for on it appeared the name of the maiden whom he was permitted to claim as his "lady for the year."

The Christians selected Feb. 14 as the day on which to express undying love because that is the date on which St. Valentine is supposed to have been beheaded in Rome by Emperor Claudius II in AD 270 for preaching morality in matters of youthful love. As legend has it, on the night before Valentine died, he sent a message to a girl whose sight he had restored and signed it, "Your Valentine." Youthful Christians in succeeding years honored St. Valentine by sending messages of love on this date.

During the 17th century, in a lottery-type game, the names of maidens were drawn by young men. A man courted the woman whose name he drew, and on Valentine's Day presented her with such items as gloves, silk stockings, or even shoestrings.

Written messages of love became highly favored valentines again during the 18 th century, and commercial valentines were introduced about the early part of the 19th century. They were hand-colored engravings with verses or mottoes.

What has been called the Age of the Valentine dated from about 1840. And many collectors believe that the loveliest valentines were made between 1840 and 1860. After 1860, when valentines were mass-produced, they became more ornate with many boasting borders of paper lace of the German type.

Valentines of the 19th and 20th centuries included those with wide lacy borders. At times they bore secret messages hidden behind clever paper devices, or sported handsomely embossed envelopes. Then there were the mechanical valentines which were much-loved during the latter part of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. By moving a tab which appeared near the bottom of the card, a gentleman's whiskers could be coyly moved or a lady's skirt daringly elevated above her ankles.

Children were particularly entranced with the out-sized 20th-century valentines in the shape of ships with flower-festooned decks and paper sails that gloriously fanned out to show the full splendor of the boat. Such cards sometimes had a tab which, when pulled, allowed a jaunty sailor aboard the ship to doff his hat.

Collectors of old valentines prize those of past centuries: a paper rose with petals that unfold to convey a message and eventually to reveal the picture of the sender; valentines that stand when opened and depict children seated beneath bowers of flowers, or such as a figure of a man carrying a package which, when opened, reveals birds and flowers and carries the verse:

"My heart to you is turning In the love time of the year."

As might be expected, the price of old valentines has escalated during the past year or two. And it is not uncommon these days to find that the larger and more ornate ones are often priced from about $15 to $35. However, vintaged paper items are fast becoming more and more important in the antique market, and investment in old valentines in good condition can be profitable.

The popular homemade valentines of the 1920s that schoolchildren lovingly embellished with layers of paper lace and charming paper cupids and doves are also highly collectible these days. But whether a valentine is handmade or mass-produced, its message of love is as welcome today as when young Romans unfurled their scrolls and youthful Christians first expressed their romantic yearnings to honor St. Valentine.

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