This was a popular and serious subject in Victorian times. In a time of highly regulated courtship, sending a valentine allowed a sharing of feelings that could not be expressed in person. Even—gasp—women(!) were allowed to send valentines.
The Art Institute’s Department of Prints and Drawings has a collection of over 2,000 valentines from the Victorian period, including fanciful creations of paper lace, fabric scraps, and artificial flowers; inexpensive printed cards with comic subjects; and even three-dimensional collages. In fact, we have one unusual example that features a real, preserved hummingbird (romantic, or just plain creepy?).
Our valentine expert, Debra Mancoff, told me that the best-known valentine maker was an American woman, Esther Howland, who opened her own firm in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1849, and hired only women. She was most famous for her extremely popular “May Basket” valentines, of which we own two. They were made of sheets of paper lace, with a large, paper-cut basket in the middle that contained huge, crowded collages of flowers made from paper and fabric. In the 1850s, a besotted young fellow wanted to impress his fiancée, and ordered a very impressive May Basket valentine from Esther for a whopping $10, which translates to approximately $300 today. He most certainly knocked the socks off his gal, but her parents, sadly, were less than impressed: they immediately broke off the engagement because they were appalled by how badly he handled his money. Poor guy…literally…
Esther Howland. Untitled valentine (two putti in a wreath), 1850/59. Bequest of Paul E. Pearson.
1 day 19 hours ago The Art Institute of Chicago Congratulations to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on their grand opening this weekend. The building, designed by architect David Adjaye, is a truly historic addition to the National Mall in Washington D.C. #APeoplesJourney #MakingHistory
1 day 22 hours ago The Art Institute of Chicago Time machines, superheroes, wild creatures, and more… JourneyMaker makes every visit to the museum an adventure.
Try this new digital interactive for families in the museum’s Ryan Learning Center, located in the Modern Wing, or print out a tour at home.
2 days 20 hours ago The Art Institute of Chicago Today marks the autumn equinox and the official end of summer. Celebrate the changing of the seasons with the latest in ARTicle’s Sound and Vision series, matching songs from around the world with our encyclopedic collection.