Entering the Prints and Drawing Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a kind of magic trick, an experience typically reserved for a scene out of a children’s book.
To begin, an escort leads you through the maze-like museum corridors. Along the way, you pass a Lucien Freud or two, and the line for the bathroom. Then, tucked between two paneled walls sits a door you’ve never noticed, with a keycard pad. Inside that door is the Met’s hidden, scholarly, interior, filled with rows and rows of apothecary shelving, more rooms, long wooden tables, a graduate student reading a very old book, and more than 1.2 million pieces of paper, thousands of which are Valentine’s Day cards.
Every Tuesday, Nancy Rosin visits to help categorize the Met’s vast cache of Valentines, most of which were donated in the ’80s but have yet to be sorted due to lack of manpower and expertise. Rosin, who serves as the president emerita of the Ephemera Society and the president of the National Valentine Collectors Association, has changed that. Over the course of Rosin’s life, she collected over 12,000 Valentines, which she has since donated to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
“My husband told me, if you’re going to do this, it should be the best collection in the world,” Rosin told me, while unpacking a box of Valentines she had set aside for my visit. Her late husband was a passionate collector himself, but of Japanese artifacts.
“Our house was a mix of Samurai armor and love tokens,” said Rosin. “We probably supported each other too much. When it was our last dollar, we would spend it on these kinds of things, no one had to convince the other. We just felt that these are essentials.”
The appeal of collecting Valentines is immediately apparent. Made in Viennese, German, French, American, and English artisanal factories or carefully made by hand, the early Valentine’s Day card represents some of the best paper craft of the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Some have fabulous lace paper embellished with ribbon or faux gems, or maybe they’re folk art, using scraps of repurposed wall paper, made by the light of a candle,” said Rosin. “These are the most personal gifts of love and friendship.”
In Rosin’s personal collection, she hasn’t only collected paper Valentines but those carved in shells, Welsh spoons, or engraved busks.
“A busk,” Rosin explained, “is a corset stay that a woman would have in between her breasts, the central plaque in the corset. It would be a constant reminder of someone’s affection because I’m sure it’d be very uncomfortable.”
Rosin’s collection doesn’t just include romantic Valentines, but Valentines given in the spirit of friendship or spiritual fervor. In fact, the religious devotional, often crafted by nuns and sold for charity, were the precursor to the Valentine.
“At first, you were seeking enlightenment or Jesus. But then these Valentines became secular, and you were seeking your lover,” said Rosin.
Rosin unpacked one Valentine after the other, incredible examples of paper lace, bright fabrics and tones, miniature pearls, ribbons, locks of hair, and endless pleas for affection, from the desperate card that read “ACCEPT MY LOVE” to the shy, spare phrase, “May I hope…” Decorating these requests were symbols of love, both recognizable and antiquated: Cupid and his bow, hearts, hands clasped and tied together, doves. Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, with his torch, a man, suggestively strumming a guitar, a fancy young lad in tights and tight, blonde curls, with a curling flag that reads, “As I conquered in war may I be victorious in love.” Even German map makers cashed in on the Valentine, creating the Das Reich der Liebe [Kingdom of Love], marking out the bad and good territories of romance: the land of mourning love, near the mountains of hopelessness, the land of happy love, the land of children, the land of lust.
The best Valentines have a sculptural, tactile quality to them. A “cobweb” or “beehive” type Valentine is made of delicately cut paper which, when pulled, forms a beautiful dome that reveals a painting beneath it. The puzzle purse —what Rosin refers to as European origami— is a piece of paper folded into a pinwheel shape, often revealing the endless lovers knot, or concealing a gold coin. Another intricate love token had multiple paper flowers that the receiver would gently undo, to expose the hidden question, “Who do you love?”
One particularly intricate Valentine was as thick as a photo album, wrapped in Tiffany blue silk. Rosin peeled back layer after layer of paper to get to the center, a miniature painting of a couple embracing. It was the gift of an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, to his wife, in 1860. Rosin estimates the Valentine must have cost him around $50, enough, in those days, to purchase a horse and buggy, or roughly, $1,500 today.
“You see this sculptural use of paper,” said Allison Rudnick, the Associate Curator of the Prints and Drawings Department who was also present. “It makes you interact, it creates intimacy, as the person has to unravel and touch.”
Rudnick mentioned that people are surprised to learn that the Prints and Drawings Department collects more than just prints and drawings, but all matter of paper ephemera. “Of course, ephemera is a bit of a problematic term, especially since once we collect it, it is something we work to preserve.”
Rosin resents that Valentines are lumped in with ephemera for another reason.
“Ephemera represents receipts and all kinds of little things that probably should have been tossed. Thankfully, they weren’t all tossed because sometimes they’re the missing parts to a story that someone is assembling in a special collection,” said Rosin. “But Valentines, those were never meant to be disposed of, I don’t believe that. These Valentines are often found in between the pages of a bible, in an album, in a trunk in an attic.”
Speaking to Rosin, it becomes clear how she came to collect 12,000 Valentines. Each one in her possession represented love between two, ordinary people, lost to history now. How could she let that fall from between her fingers, back into the anonymous pile?
Hoard is a monthly column on collectibles, collections, and collectors outside of the fine arts by Shanti Escalante-De Mattei.