Standing on her tip toes, Annie Laura Owens plucked a valentine card from the top of her revolving Christmas tree. It's a card she and her sister sent to their grandmother about 60 years ago.
The tree, turning slowly on its base, is no longer adorned by Christmas ornaments. Now it's covered in the valentine cards the Rock Hill woman has collected for more than 50 years -- the oldest dating to 1918.
Owens, 67, was captivated by the cards as a child because Valentine's Day is her birthday. She continues to collect, she said, because she likes to read the verses to her husband of 20 years, Jack, 82.
"It's a happy thing we can do together," she said.
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According to Nancy Rosin, a valentine card collecting expert and speaker, people are drawn to old valentines because they are a personal means of communication and a connection to the past.
"For some people, they are reminders of their own youth, and they are certainly the link with things that hardly exist anymore," said Rosin, who serves on the board of the Epherema Society of America, which provides information for people interested in collecting old cards and documents or other old papers.
Rosin began collecting vintage valentines more than 40 years ago from antique shops. Initially she was attracted to the fancy card designs. But it was her fascination with the story the cards told that launched her into starting a collection that now contains more than 10,000 pieces.
"I wanted to collect valentines with a specific goal, beyond having the best collection in the world. I wanted to be able to show the evolution and history and make this something fascinating for people to study," Rosin said.
The design of a valentine card reflects what was happening at that time in history, Rosin said. By examining a card and looking at how it was constructed -- the design, the paper, the artwork, the verses and the punctuation -- the valentine can be traced to the time period in which it was made.
"They tell the stories of people, of history, of real people like us, who just lived in different times, when the creation of a love token or its purchase was a major event," Rosin said. "I'm the archivist of their love."
Evalene Pulati, founder and president of the National Valentine Collectors Association, has many valentines in her collection that reflect history and the traditions of bygone days. Her favorite card, a marriage proposal from a woman to a man, is framed and is displayed in her bathroom.
Pulati said that in the 1800s, on Valentine's Day of leap year, it was permissible for a woman to propose to a man. The card reads, "You would lead a happier life if you'd give up the latch key and take a good wife."
According to the Greeting Card Association, the first valentine sent was by St. Valentine in 270 A.D. The night before his execution, St. Valentine wrote a note expressing gratitude to his jailer's daughter for her help delivering messages and bringing food to him.
He signed it, "From your valentine."
Most of the old cards have features not found in modern valentines.
Pulati said that up until the early 1800s, valentines were handmade and were often proposals of marriage.
"People would spend days or weeks making them," she said.
By the 1850s, Valentines were manufactured, but they were still more elaborate than what we have today, Rosin said. The paper was heavier and thicker, she said, because paper at that time was made from cotton fibers.
Many of the manufactured valentine cards were decorated with art work by famous artists, such as Francesco Bartolozzi, Jules Cheret and others.
By the late 1800s, during the Victorian era, three-dimensional, honey-combed paper puff cards that opened into shapes such as bells, hearts and fans were popular.
After World War II, valentines started to become simpler, and were made on folded paper with a verse, Pulati said.
Rosin said a good place to find vintage cards is from antique dealers that specialize in antique paper.
Joy Shivar, an antique dealer in Huntersville, N.C., said most vintage valentines sell for prices that range from $5 to $40.
Shivar said some of the most desirable valentines in terms of monetary worth goes are from the Civil War period. For example, Shivar said that one valentine letter written by a Union soldier to his wife, decorated with hand-drawn hearts and flowers, sold for $300.
Valentines were a link to home for soldiers during the Civil War, Rosin said. "Love is eternal," she said, "Whether war or bad economy, love is constant."
The cards in Owens' collection include family cards her mother had saved. She has also purchased valentine cards from antique shops and on E-bay.
Among her favorites are a collection of baseball valentines she got on E-bay from someone in Oregon. She said these ones are very special because her grandson, a freshman, plays baseball for Mississippi State University.
VALENTINE'S DAY THROUGH THE AGES
1400s: Handmade paper valentines were exchanged in various parts of Europe.
1700s: Devotional pieces made by nuns honoring St. Valentine were sold for charitable fundraising.
1850s: Esther Howland, a woman from Massachussetts, became the first printer of valentines in the United States.
1870s: Louis Prang, a German immigrant, published fancy cards featuring reproductions of well-known artists' paintings.
1895 to 1915: Stand-up cards and three-dimensional fold-out cards were popular.
1900s: Postcard valentines were introduced.
1940s: Valentines were of a simpler, flat folded design.