Whether you’re single or in a relationship this Valentine’s Day, I think we all can reflect fondly on our elementary school years when the holiday meant iced treats, chocolate hearts and best of all, a shoebox full of little paper or cardboard cards from our friends– and hopefully our classroom crush.
While my generation swapped cards emblazoned with characters like Garfield or Power Rangers, 1940s valentines relied more on quirky illustrations and visual puns to get across their sentiments. Many of us likely did not hold on to the cards from our youth but thankfully some of our forebears tucked away their fragile mementos into scrapbooks, attics or basements for future collectors to rediscover and preserve.
Patrick O’Connell, a 25-year old artist living in the East Bay area of Northern California, is one such collector. I discovered Patrick on Instagram through a mutual friend and quickly became smitten with his stellar collection of 1940s valentines. He was generous enough to share a portion of his collection here and to tell us about how he started seeking out these bits of history, what else he looks for on his antiquing jaunts and the best spots for vintage in his city.
How did you start collecting vintage valentines? Where do you usually find them– flea markets, thrift stores, online?
I wish this story was more interesting than it is, but I’ll give it to you straight. Last year I bought a dozen or so old valentines for a girl I was dating at the time. I had always admired old valentines, but never really had the need or desire to buy or collect them. I knew of a local antique store that was selling some old valentines, so I went in and picked up a few. Of course in the few days they were in my possession, my collector’s impulse was triggered, I became attached to them and they became harder and harder to give away. However, I did give them to her, telling myself that I’d just buy myself some at a later date. Fast forward a few months later, she and I were through, and my desire to buy old little cards inscribed with “I love you” and “be mine” waned. Not to mention, they had disappeared from the antique store booths.
I didn’t give much thought to vintage valentines again until earlier this year, on a trip to another local antique store, which had recently assembled a Valentine’s Day display. I took a bit of time sifting through the few hundred cards they had, looking for cards that had puns, cats and/or drawings I liked. I walked out with two dozen or so. Since that trip, I’ve visited a few other antique stores and purchased some here and there. My collection is still rather modest (less than one hundred) and to be honest I don’t know how actively I’ll be collecting them again until next year. As I suggested above, the antique stores I frequent tend to pull them from their shelves by the end of the month, and I expect they will fall on the backburner of my collecting as well. I suppose ebay is a good source for collecting them year-round, and if I do continue collecting it will likely be in bigger assorted lots from the site.
The majority of your collection seems to be from the 1940s– what drew you to this era and what is distinct about valentines from this time period?
I don’t believe that I’ve made a conscious effort to collect valentines from this era, but I would agree most of the cards I have are from the 1940s. This makes sense to me for a few reasons. First, I am very interested in cartoons, which were everywhere in the 1940s. Naturally, cartoon design and humor seeped into the valentine card industry, influencing the look and feel of the cards. I believe I am drawn to cards of this era because of their “cartooniness”. Secondly (and this is just me speculating) I believe the 1940s to be a high point in production and circulation of cards, because that is the era I see most often in shops. I’ve run across a few Victorian/Edwardian valentines too, and although I love the beautiful illustrations, they are a bit too ornate and sentimental for my tastes.
How do you display your collection? Do you keep them up year-round or do they make a once a year appearance?
My collection is stored wrapped in tissue paper in a drawer (fancy huh?) . Although I enjoy the cards, they are not something I would necessarily want to look at all the time. I would like to put them in an old photo album or scrapbook, but the permanence of that notion makes me a little uneasy. I also would hate to have them stuck to pages in a book as the inscriptions on the back are sometimes as interesting as the illustrations on the front. Most of the cards are die-cut as well, which would make the photo corners rather useless. I actually purchased most of them thinking I would do a mass “vintage valentine” swap via the USPS. However, the day drew nearer and nearer, making this harder for me to organize. So for now, they will stay in that tissue paper, maybe to be swapped with other collectors next year.
What difference do you see between vintage and contemporary valentine cards and rituals? Will you be giving out any vintage cards to your sweetheart, family or friends this year?
Of course there is no arguing that from a visual standpoint that today’s cards are generally sub-par when compared to those of yesteryear. And I do believe old cards were printed better, and made to last (only time will tell what today’s Sponge Bob and Barbie cards will look like in 70+ years). You can also argue that today’s children’s Valentines are largely marketing schemes to help advertise a franchise or product. I have also noticed (and remember from my childhood in the 1990s) the presence of candies either with paper cards, or as an outright substitute for them (i.e. fun size skittles with hearts on the package, and blank “to” and “from” boxes. I have not looked at enough contemporary cards to give an accurate description of their content, but I can imagine that the messages are very similar. Of course the characters and styles have changed, but I believe to format of an illustration and a clever saying is still pretty standard.
I don’t know how much I believe Valentine’s Day rituals have changed over the years. I think kids still get rather excited with the idea of confessing their true love to that one special girl (or boy) by picking the perfect little red card that tells her just how he feels. On the big day, immediately after the chaotic classroom valentine swap, he still anxiously sifts through his tissue-paper-covered shoebox sweating bullets looking for the card where she will declare that his love is not only reciprocated, but surpassed. If he is lucky, he will simply get the “let’s be friends” card, but he who is less lucky will get the “You are the only one for me” card, and later find out that his classroom rival Johnny Hearthrob got the same card. In either case, he will still feel utterly dejected, but with any luck will find at the bottom of his little valentine mailbox an unexpectedly nice card from the cute girl that sits across from him, re-igniting his hopeful flame, albeit in a different direction.
As for me this year, I have no sweetheart to give any old valentines to. That is probably why I wanted to organize a vintage valentine swap. I’ve got a few set aside for a few friends, and I’m sure I’ll give one to my mom. I suppose I’ll just hoard the remainder, in anticipation that one day they will actually come in handy.
What else do you collect? How did you first get into vintage/antique shopping?
I collect a few other odds and ends- mostly old photos. I am specifically on the lookout for photos of women with cats, and various San Francisco tourist spots (although I buy a lot of others while searching). I am quite enamored with the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, so I’ve collected a few things from that event. I buy a lot of old books, magazines and other forms of ephemera. Recently I’ve started collecting old postcards as well.
I have a family of friends that are very much into roller skating, and for Christmas I acquired over 200 vintage roller rink labels (1930s-1960s) from all over the United States. I spent quite a bit of time organizing them in an unused vintage photo album, which turned out to be rather involved, but quite a fun and rewarding project. I’m currently working on a follow up gift for the same family (for this Christmas), and am actively collecting things for that project.
I particularly love collecting ephemera. I am a preservationist at heart, and the idea of producing something to be almost immediately discarded is crazy to me. So I come across things of this nature and think it is my duty to save them. Take these valentines for example. How many of any particular one was produced? Several thousand? How many of them were just lost or abandoned over the years? How many still exist? I also feel drawn toward ephemeral items because in the collecting market, they can be relatively cheap. Maybe if I had more money, I would be drawn toward collecting something a bit more spendy such as bakelite radios, old televisions or mechanical typewriters.
I’ve been collecting vintage stuff consistently for a few years now. I can remember even as a child being drawn to antique stores. I think I’ve always been enamored with knick knacks and trinkets. You just see so many interesting things out at antique stores. I also love knowing that something I buy has had a life before me. I like things that show slight wear and tear.
How does vintage shopping in your city compare to other places you’ve traveled to? What are the “must see” spots in the East Bay in terms of historic landmarks, antique shop districts, etc?
I live in a small-ish suburb about 45 minutes southeast of San Francisco. The place for all things vintage in the East Bay is about twenty minutes south of where I live. It is a small town called Niles. In the pre-talkie days, Niles was home to the western expansion of Essanay Film Studios (originally of Chicago). Most notably, Charlie Chaplin filmed a handful of movies on at this studio. The city still has much of its golden-era charm, including an excellent silent film theater and museum, and many antique stores (one of my favorites being “My Friends and I”). If you are interested in the past, and find yourself in the Bay Area, Niles is a must. I should also mention that the Paramount theater in Oakland is a must see. They screen old movies once a month, in the true old-fashioned way, complete with an organ performance, news reels, and even an old cartoon. I have seen many great films there, and as a matter of fact will be there tomorrow night (2/15) to watch “Casablanca”.
There are also a few great antique stores in Alameda, which is just west of Oakland, and in Martinez which is northeast of Oakland.
What other aspects of vintage culture do you embrace—i.e. the music you listen to or do you wear vintage clothing?
I listen to quite a bit of old music from many generations and genres. There is a wonderful radio station I listen to on my morning commute- KCEA “Memories 89.1 fm” Big band and swing music. I have a real soft spot for Cliff Edwards’ music as well, and much of my radio collection is old junk. I also love watching old movies (particularly noir) and episodes of the Twilight Zone. I’m really in to old comic strips/panel gags, 1930s animation, old architecture and product design. I’m quite interested in bakelite radios ( I just wish you could tune in to old stations with them).
I would wear more vintage clothing if I had the patience to shop for them more often. Unfortunately I am 6’3” and weigh next to nothing. It is hard enough for me to find contemporary clothes that fit, and it seems I have worse luck yet when looking for old stuff. If I had more patience for clothes shopping, I would dress in vintage suits every day as I love that look. The only vintage piece of clothing I have is a flannel shirt that my grandpa bought in 1946 to take my grandma out on a date (I’ve got photos of him in the shirt from 1946 as well). Although it is in great shape, I am fearful over use will expedite its deterioration, so I wear it somewhat sparsely.
Thank you again Patrick for taking the time to answer my questions and sharing your wonderful Valentines with us! If you’re hankering for more, you can check out this Facebook page Patrick set up to share his collection. He’s also a talented illustrator, keep up to date with his artwork and upcoming shows here.
If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment, let’s encourage Patrick to share more of his ephemera with us in the future– I for one am intrigued by his vintage photo collection of women with cats!