The cost of many pre-1920 valentines is enough to break your heart, if not your wallet.
That's why I'm continually on the prowl for "penny valentines" -- the type most of us gave to one another when we were children; they are still handed out by kids today.
I prefer examples that date back to the 1920s through '50s. Most are comical, even a bit corny. No matter. These endearing greetings are usually tagged for less than $10.
Exchanging valentines is a custom that dates back many hundreds of years. The earliest cards were made by hand of high-quality paper accented with ribbon, satin, lace and perhaps exotic feathers. Lovesick senders also had to come up with original verse, or poetry, as a part of the greeting.
Commercially produced cards first appeared in Germany, France and England. It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that ready-to-send cards were sold in the United States.
The most notable American maker was Esther Howland, of Worcester, Mass. Her success was so great that at one point she sold $100,000 worth of cards annually. Most of her works currently fetch at least $75 apiece.
Traditionally, valentines were presented by one adult to another. By 1915, however, firms began to turn out valentines for school-age kids and teachers. Stationers and greeting card companies such as Gibson and Whitman retailed kits to whip up valentines using crayons plus scraps of lace and paper. Once assembled, the cards were stuffed into the envelopes provided.
By the 1930s, most valentines sold for as little as a penny each. Retailers kept cards reasonably priced so that youngsters could buy a card for every classmate.
It wasn't long before school parties took place. Cards were deposited in boxes embellished with hearts and cupids. The precious cargo was eagerly distributed by students, while their teacher served cupcakes and ladled punch.
Luckily, large quantities of these sweet valentines -- at times called "flats" -- have survived. I must have 800 or more in my collection.
I'm fond of those depicting animals. And this holiday, I decided to decorate my mantel with those featuring cats. One shows off a feline sitting at her parlor organ or piano, ostensibly playing a love song. Another example has an orange tabby decked out with a big blue bow, ready to snap a photo with his camera. A favorite of mine has a kitty dressed in a pretty frock and pink ribbon. She says, "Hearts are trumps, and you're my king, my valentine."
By the way, these valentines are a bit special. Known as "mechanicals," they have moving parts held together by a tiny steel eyelet or tabs that perform an action when pulled. For example, I have a kitty whose head rocks back and forth holding a heart saying "Purr-haps you'll be my Valentine."
You'll find vintage valentines at thrift shops, estate sales, flea markets and antiques shops. I hope you will have as much fun putting together a collection of these tiny treasures as I have.
The world's largest rare-book fair, sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, will hold its 46th exhibition in San Francisco on Feb. 15-17. The event -- a mecca for devotees of ephemera -- draws more than 200 vendors from across the United States and around the world.
Among the rare pieces up for sale at the book fair will be a first edition of "The Federalist Papers"; a rare edition of Audubon's "Birds in America"; an autographed chapter of Mark Twain's "A Tramp Abroad"; a miniature Quran used by Muslim soldiers during World War I; and photographs of the Rolling Stones' first United Kingdom tour in 1964.
The popular event will feature a number of seminars covering a range of topics. Two, in particular, sound like winners: "Book Collecting 101" and "What's This Book Worth?" There's also a chance to show as many as three of your own special volumes to an expert for an oral appraisal that's free with your paid admission.
All of the fun occurs at the Concourse Exhibition Center, at Eighth and Brannan streets, San Francisco. Tickets cost $25 for a three-day pass, or $15 for a single-day pass on either Feb. 16 or Feb. 17. Buy yours at www.cabookfair.com. Details: 800-454-6401.
Annual art sale
The fifth annual art sale supporting the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital of Palo Alto starts Feb. 18 at the Thrift Box in San Jose and runs for a month.
Interior designers and savvy connoisseurs are among those who make it a point to be at this yearly clearance. Expect to find original oil paintings and watercolors, as well as lithographs posters and prints. There is a good selection of frames and mats.
Discover the Thrift Box at 1362 Lincoln Ave., San Jose. Hours: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more details, call 408-294-4490.
Contact Steven Yvaska at firstname.lastname@example.org or 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190.