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    Auction Finds

    Vintage Valentine’s Day cards at auction

    A few weeks ago, I was walking among the tables at one of my favorite auction houses, not finding too much that struck my fancy. Then, on a far table I saw a box of greeting cards. Nifty, I thought.


    As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m drawn to ephemera – old papers – because you never know what stories or history is waiting to be discovered.

    As I shuffled through them, I saw that they were mostly vintage Christmas cards, and looked to be from the turn of the century. I didn’t stay around for the auction, so I left a bid for the box lot. Luckily, I got them for $17.50, picked them up the next day and brought them home.

    I was like a kid picking through the cards, about 50 to 75 of them. Like many of us, someone apparently kept them for years until a relative decided it was time to let them go. They were lovely little cards, with the greetings and graphic on one side and the backs blank. Some were embossed, some were flat, and the writing was primarily calligraphic.  

    About 95 percent of them were Christmas cards, but tucked among them were others, including four Valentine cards.

    The neatest of the Valentine cards was one with four black cats (black cats for Valentine? Sounds more like Halloween). The card had been sent by a man named Ray (the ink was a bit smudged) to his sweetheart.

    The four black cats sat against a bright orange-red background on a log surrounded by flowers. The greeting said:


    Each cat slipped individually out of a pocket inside the log and on each of their tails was an inscription:

    “If you Refuse me, I’ll set up a CATerwaul!

    Don’t Trifle with me, I won’t be a CAT’s – paw!

    Don’t let me CATch you flirting with anyone else!

    If You won’t be My Valentine – It will be a CATastrophe!”

    There’s no date on the card, so I’m not sure when Ray sent it.


    I also found another unusual Valentine greeting among the box lot: an old Western Union Valentine Telegram. It consisted of both the envelope and telegram, again sent by Ray to a woman in Ventnor, NJ, named Helen McLernon. There was no date on it, either.

    The colored graphic on the envelope and telegram appeared to be a Victorian scene. A woman in a carriage with a fan was being wooed with candy and flowers by two suitors. All were in Victorian dress. At the bottom right, there appeared to be a dog looking at the scene. Another woman and man stood to the left of the carriage, and the carriage-carriers waited patiently for her command to move one. 

    These Valentine telegrams were new to me. So, I Googled. It seemed that some years before Singing telegrams (1933) and Candygrams (1960s), a Western Union vice president figured that people would be willing to send telegrams on such special occasions as Christmas and other holidays. In fact, the first of these greetings was a holly-and-berry blank telegram created for Christmas messages in 1914. Seeing that people were struggling to come up with their own words, the Western Union man had the offices to keep scrapbooks of sentimental messages for people to choose from.

    The greetings telegrams became popular around the time of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934, and telegrams for Valentine’s Day and a few more holidays were added, according to the site.

    One website noted that before World War II, people paid 35 cents for their own words or 25 cents for Western Union’s.  A 1942 ad in Billboard magazine showed the cost to be 20 cents locally and 25 cents if it was to be sent to distant points.

    The first British greetings telegrams were produced in 1935, after they became very popular in other countries, according to a blog called the British Postal Museum and Archive. The first British Valentine telegram was designed a year later.

    In my research, I came across an old Western Union ad promoting the telegrams, along with a Candygram ad in a 1960 Ebony magazine. Western Union was selling the candygrams (a box of chocolates from freezers in Western Union offices, it touted) for $5 for 2 pounds and $2.95 for one pound – plus cost of the telegram, whose message was on the top of the chocolate’s box.


    The last two cards in my box lot were of children: One was a little girl with two Valentine hearts in both hands. The other was a little girl and boy walking towards a house holding hands:

    Remember as children buying those packs of Valentine hearts candy with messages that we exchanged with girlfriends, too shy and frightened to give them to a boy. Do kids do that anymore? Are the candies sold anymore?

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