Written for First Cut Magazine
A Guild of American Papercutters' Publication
Vol. 16 No. 1 Winter 2003 Issue Pages 20-23

This document is stored online so that researchers and the
general public may search for information easily.

Youthful Valentines and Gifts from the Heart
by Nancy Rosin, Valentine Editor

When approached to write about the historic perspective of the art of papercutting, with our youth in mind, I was challenged to examine the process in a new way. In pursuing my collecting passion, I usually thought of the romantic swain and the love-struck young lady - sophisticated adults creating ardent missives for one another. In addition to Valentines Day, the term "tokens of love" was applied to similar gifts, given any time of the year. Without the present-day shop to purchase a manufactured greeting card, people followed the tradition of handcrafting gifts and spent a great deal of time creating the vehicle, which would successfully convey their message. These were frequently simple and rustic, but the gifts were always cherished for the intrinsic thought behind them, and the obvious care.

Not all of these handmade treasures were made by great artists. The purity and simiplicity of many are the qualities I personally find so endearing. Many were inspired by family traditions, incorporating artistry from their immigrant backgrounds. The liebesbriefe, the German fraktur love letters, often created from a page folded into eighths and then ornately cut and paint-decorated, are masterpieces of the genre. More simple versions of the same technique were popular, and executed by young people as tender expressions of affection, utilizing techniques to which they had become familiar.

Photo Caption:
Hand, heart, arrow, key (1 1/2" x 1") This tiny memento,
found in Vermont, may have been made from directions in a book!

Papercutting was a pleasant patime, a game, a hobby, and in the case of valentines, an essential talent. I have found directions for papercutting a paper heart, dart, and key - which would have been a perfect valentine - in Lydia Maria Childs, The Girl's Own Book, published in Boston in 1834. Far from the immigrant German culture, in the refined strata of Boston, papercutting was obviously popular and enjoyed. Her book describes a number of paper "amusements" including "lace work cuttings" which could be delivately cut and arranged around a candlestick, so the lacework hung down decoratively. Her elaborate instructions included multiple tissue layers cut with grape clusters and tendriles - enhanced by dipping in melted spermaceti* and then into colored glass gust, so the rich clusters would shine brilliantly in the candlelight. In an era of whaling and glass-houses**. one can imagine this magical, paper artistry. Today the hazardous aspect definitely outweighs the fantasy!

Photo Caption:
Heart and Hand (4" x 2") The ultimate gift.

Two images associated with love that have become icons in American folk art, and are often seen in the form of delicate paper love tokens are woven hearts and the heart and hand images. In their many variations these images are sentimental designs that, for their usual small size, appear to represent a most significant gift. Considering the scarcity and cost of paper at the time, they were deeply cherished. It is not unusual o find woven paper items made from reused paper - letters with writing, advertising, wallpaper scraps, or designs cut from decorative linen labels. The heart and hand imagery remains very popular today as an expressive design motif. As another tender memento in the nineteenth century, the watch paper could be transformed from a functional protective addition to a pocket watch, to a constant and romantic reminder of one's beloved.

Photo Caption:
Watch paper (diameter 1 1/2") Butterfly and flower
are the central design of this tender gift.

Further explorations into my personal research library provided another interesting historic perspective - that of the "kindergarten movement" - a fascinating aspect to early childhood education in America.

Following the teachings of Friedrich Froebel in Germany in the 1830's, attention came to be placed on the dynamics of teaching children the concepts of mathematics and geometry in addition to the skills of personal and spatial relationships by using simple tools such as building blocks, parquetry tiles, and paper art. Three albums in my collection, labeled Folding, Cutting, and Weaving, use actual examples to illustrate the concept. As teachers were trained in the Froebel philosophy in America, they created these albums as a part of their course, thereby proving their competence. Since this took place in the 1870s, long after many of my papercut love tokens, were created, it emphasized the traditions of paper art and gave legitimacy to the craft as a serious conceptual tool. We know, then, that small children were being taught these cutting and folding techniques as early as the 1830s.

Photo Caption:
Froebel cuttings (5" x 5") A practice piece, using a design of oak leaves
and acorns, folded and cut in the same manner in which many valentines were made.

As the valentine evolved with the advance of the industrial revolution, and handcrafted lace paper was replaced by manufactured materials, even the handmade child's valentine began to change. No longer equired to cut one's own lace, paper doilies could be incorporated into "modern" versions of Valentines. For example, the craft kits sold by the George Whitney Company of Worcester, Massachusetts, became a popular alternative. Boxed ingredients with finished examples pictured on the cover were the new childhood pastime. They were cute but, sadly, the artistry of simple little early woven hearts was never recreeated.

The future generation of papercutters does not have to step back in time to produce treasured mementos; but must only be inspired to perpetuate a beautiful tradition. The paper artist blends a unique skill with incredible talent, and then adds the magical ingredients that create something special. Love, inspiration, dedication - these are just some of the qualities that combine to produce a true and enduring gift from the heart. While there is no indication of the age of the creators of the illustrated items, they appear to have been made by a young and enthusiastic group! It is hoped that these examples may stimulate readers to apply their talens to this most endearing holiday and pass the treasured hand cut Valentine tradition on to a new generation of cutters!

Photo Captions:

Bird Tree (2 3/4" x 2 1/2") A popular love symbol in Pennsylvania

Heart with long gloves (1 3/4")

Wreath of Hearts (7" x 7") The simplicity of this expression of love - like an
endless knot - makes a powerful statement.

Hearts and hand (4 3/4" x 2") Love -- multiplied!

Hearts/hair knot (2 1/2" x 3") An exquisite combination - incorporating hearts,
the heart and hand, and a glorious lock of hair, woven into an endless knot of love.

Woven Heart "basket" (3" x 4") A four-sided container might hold a special present.

PA Scherenschnitte (8" x 10") A magical composition of ferns and lichen (my
interpretation) with the hands and hearts reaching towards the center. Cut from very
thin, blue, lined paper.

Woven Heart (5 1/2" x 6") Tiny scraps of paper could be woven into magical
remembrances... to be treasured forever.

Woven basket/hands (6" x 4 1/2") Two pairs of hands create a woven basket valentine.
Folded basket (1 1/2" x 5") The same piece was folded and placed into an envelope
for mailing to a special young woman.

*Spermaceti was a by-product of the whaling industry - a substance from the sperm whales' head cavity apparently used for "superior candles" and at one time believed to "be of great value for medicinal purposes ...a certain cure for all diseases ...esteemed to be worth its' weight in silver".

**Glass-houses refers to the places where oil lamps and household articles were created at the time.

Child, Lydia Maria, The Girl's Own Book. Carter, Hendee and Babcock, Boston, 1834.
Brosterman, Norman, Inventing Kindergarten. Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1997

Copyright 2003,2005 (c) Nancy Rosin
Click here to return to the Victorian Treasury Library