Collecting Valentines

History, Odd Collections, People, This Week in History, Traditions
on February 3, 2011
David Mudd Rosin examines the detailed features of her precious tokens of love.

Nancy Rosin isn’t related to Thomas Hill, a Vermont bachelor who lived in the early 1800s, or to Union soldier Amos Winner; but she feels a dear kinship to the sentimental men. Their handwritten tokens of love are among 10,000 valentines that grace her home in Franklin Lakes, N.J. (pop. 10,422).

“There is hope and dream and love in every piece,” says Rosin, 68, about her collection of romantic greetings, which spans six centuries. “You don’t get deeper into a person’s heart.”

The handmade valentine created by Hill in 1822 for Miss Ann Eliza Cromwell is embellished with cut-paper horses, houses, deer, doves and eagles pasted on a dark blue background adorned with golden paper stars and hearts. He describes his beloved as “sweet as shugar and prosesh as gold.”

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“I think about winter in Vermont and the importance of sugar,” says Rosin, a retired nurse. “I imagine the gentleman getting this big piece of paper and cutting it by candlelight for this woman.”

Tenderness also is expressed in a valentine sent by Winner from his Civil War post to his “Dear Sister” on Feb. 14, 1863. He ends with “I must stop riteing for this time I must tend to my gard.” The patriotic valentine pictures a tent draped with an American flag, which opens to an image of a soldier writing to his beloved.

“Valentines are such pure, original history,” says Rosin, president of the National Valentine Collectors Association. “They’re a window into lives at that time.”

Nearly 40 years ago, Rosin fell head-over-heels for valentines during weekend trips to antique stores with her husband, Henry. She became enchanted by the beauty and sentiments conveyed in the paper greetings, and how they reflect historical events and the emotions of the people who made them.

Henry, 79, encouraged her to pursue her passion. “I told her to put together the best collection she could—and she did,” he says.

Rosin’s sentimental journey has taken her to auctions in England and across the United States. Her collection includes “devotionals” made by nuns in convents in Germany and France during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The tiny parchment keepsakes are decorated with images of saints, hearts and bouquets, and are the precursors of valentine cards.

Other rarities include late 1700s books—called “Valentine writers”—filled with romantic verse for suitors searching for the right words, and hundreds of elegant and embossed valentines made in the 1800s by Esther Howland, affectionately known as the Mother of the American Valentine, who popularized the manufactured greeting card.

“Nancy’s collection is world-class,” says Sheryl Jaeger, 57, a valentine appraiser and dealer in Tolland, Conn. “It’s probably the best in the world.”

Among Rosin’s most cherished valentines are the creations of English poet and artist Elizabeth Cobbold, who made intricate paper invitations to her St. Valentine’s Eve balls in the early 1800s. The hand-cut invitations depict merry dance scenes, cupids and chariots. After buying them from an antique shop in London, Rosin found a book written in 1827 by Cobbold’s son and eventually she talked to Cobbold’s great-great-great-grandson.

“I don’t collect things,” she says. “I collect stories.”

When she acquired an ornate Civil War-era valentine card with an image of Col. Robert Cross wreathed by embossed flowers, satin and silvered paper lace, she researched his military records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and learned that he had fought at the Battle of Bull Run. His wife, presuming him dead, remarried.

“I feel an obligation to preserve this shared heritage,” says Rosin, who writes articles and lectures nationwide about the significance of valentines as social documents.

Each precious valentine is cherished by Rosin, whether it’s a tiny handmade valentine wishing luck in “Amerika” to a beloved Swiss relative bound for the United States or a “puzzle-purse” valentine that unfolds to reveal poetic messages and a lock of a sweetheart’s hair.

“They all share the fingerprints of love,” she says.