For One Romantic, Vintage Valentines Tell Stories of Love

Franklin Lakes' resident Nancy Rosin is a true romantic and is passionate about all things Valentine's Day -- especially handcrafted, antique cards.

This layered creation, circa 1870, features a beautiful chromolithographed cards and layered lace, adorned with die-cut scraps, and the motto, "Hope is My Star."
By Young Soo Yang

Valentine’s Day is big business for candy makers, florists and restaurateurs. And for makers of greeting cards, it’s the second largest holiday, behind Christmas.

According to the Greeting Card Association, approximately 150 million greeting cards will be purchased for Valentine’s Day this year in the U.S. And that figure doesn’t even include the packaged Valentines exchanged in children’s classrooms.

Nancy Rosin, President of the National Valentine Collectors Association, is a true romantic and is passionate about all things Valentine’s Day — especially handcrafted, antique cards. We spoke to the long-time Franklin Lakes resident via email about the holiday and her love for rare, vintage Valentine’s Day cards.

Q: What made you become a collector?

Rosin: As a child, growing up in Washington, D.C., my mother would take me to visit my aunt’s antique shop in Georgetown. I think that was the beginning – there were always interesting things. And after I was married, my husband and I would love to take drives antiquing. On one of them, I found the die-cut scraps, which I now know were tiny Victorian paper decorations, and I decided to collect them to use in future craft projects. When I saw Valentines, and realized the scraps were embellishments, I wanted to collect them. As I studied and explored, and found earlier and better Valentines, my husband encouraged me to create the best possible collection that would tell the story … the historic chronicle, a documentary about actual people. I had a small exhibit at my children’s elementary school, a small article in a local paper … and suddenly I became the expert and I shared this passion. I have always sought the best and most rare examples, trying to elevate the Valentine as a historic subject worthy of scholarship.

Q: What was the most memorable Valentine’s Day Card you ever received and what made it so special?

Rosin: I have always loved all of the handmade treasures made by my children. Once I started collecting, these treasures became my special Valentines, as they are all gifts of love, preserved now by me.

Q: I know that you have a fondness for the Victorian era. What made that era so special or particularly romantic? And how does it compare to today’s tokens of love?

Rosin: I really love every period. In fact, sometimes the Victorian frills are sometimes too much. I prefer the earlier times, but “Victorian” has come to signify the later part of [Queen] Victoria’s reign. From the earlier handmade to the peak (1840-60 for Valentines), they were majestic, lace paper confections … delicate treasures with careful hand-painting on satin, jewels embellishing silk chiffon, and delicacy that we saw at no other time. Once the Industrial Revolution enabled people to easily buy machine-made pieces, much of the quality I love, was lost. I like to think of people making Valentines by candlelight, or selecting something so very special in a shop, or a soldier receiving one from a beloved at home. I cherish the sentimentality that shows the humanity of those people who loved just as we do, but lived in another time.

Q: How vast is your collection and what are your personal favorites?

Rosin: I have approximately ten thousand pieces –- all favorites. I guess each has some special quality that I adore. I love the works of Esther Howland, the Mother of the Valentine, and also the delicate lace masterpieces from the talented English lace papermakers. I think my favorites are the handmade folk art pieces … paper cuts, Fraktur, and anything with a lot of history! I have one from Pennsylvania, dated 1774, with so much history and connected to the very origins of our country. I just wrote an article for the Guild of American Papercutters. These are the stories I love and cherish.

Q: How and where do you find vintage cards?

Rosin: I find Valentines at antique shows, auctions, the Internet, and now many people contact me directly.

Q: What’s the most valuable piece in your collection?

Rosin: Value and price are different. I don’t like to put any monetary value on pieces. To me, it may be that they are the missing part of the puzzle I am trying to piece together, and so it is invaluable. There are pottery, glass, wood, and scrimshaw items, including Love Spoons, Fans, Sailor’s shell Valentines –- all are valuable to me. Some may have stamps that are “valuable.” But I’m not a stamp collector, so that part is not really relative to me. Despite the fact that many of these pieces do have significant monetary value, that is not “why” I have them.

Q: I know that you have traveled far and wide to add to your collection. Is the thrill of the hunt a big part of the appeal?

Rosin: Yes, there’s the thrill of the hunt. But mostly, it’s the excitement of discovering something that the dealer didn’t recognize as important and knowing how special it is, by having done my homework.

Q: What makes a great Valentine’s Day card? The beauty and craftsmanship? The words?

Rosin: To me, a great card is one that is/was sent with love. It is great because of who sent it. It can be a simple little handmade card or an elaborate one, but it’s the thought behind it that is meaningful. In antiques, for me, it’s the historical link.

Q: Do you have any suggestions on how people can personalize their cards?

Rosin: Antique cards were sometimes personalized with familiar poetry that would have been especially meaningful, perhaps with a golden paper ring, which would have been a proposal, with a lock of hair, or — I even have one with hearts cut from satin – either from a hair ribbon or dress fabric… all of those can be on modern cards.

Q: How do you celebrate Valentine’s Day? Is this the biggest holiday of the year for you?

Rosin: Sometimes I get calls for interviews on Valentine’s Day, so I try to stay home! Once I gave a program on Valentine’s Day (evening really) and no one came as I imagine everyone was out to dinner with their loved one! This is a busy month for me, so I usually just have a beautiful, romantic meal at home with my husband, and enjoy the roses that I look forward to receiving from my children! I know that I have helped people to have romantic celebrations with cards I have handmade, and information I have provided. It really is the fulfillment of a major part of the passion I have for these things – acquiring, researching and writing, and then sharing. And, as a collector, knowing that I am preserving this love, for another generation to enjoy.

Nancy Rosin is the President of the National Valentine Collectors Association and the Vice President of The Ephemera Society of America.