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Vintage valentines at U of T's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library showcase pre-Tinder romance

Last summer the library acquired a collection of hundreds of old valentines from about 1830-1940.

A Victorian pop-up valentine from a new collection at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

Laura Pedersen / University of Toronto

A Victorian pop-up valentine from a new collection at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

Long before Tinder and texts, handwritten cards were the proper way to send a message of love. Now a new collection at University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is offering a glimpse at what romance once looked like.

Last summer the library bought a collection of almost 500 Valentine's Day cards, with dates ranging from about 1830 to 1940, from a local antique dealer, said rare book librarian Liz Ridolfo.

“I think that the level of creativity and thought that went into them was much more than I was expecting for something that was meant to be given and then forgotten afterwards,” Ridolfo said, adding that her favourites are elaborate pop-up and mechanical cards that incorporate materials like feathers and lace.

Laura Pedersen/University of Toronto

The collection shows the evolution of printing for the masses, she explained, and is heavy on flowers, angels, doves, birds, children and “corny one-liners.”

“Overall they’re more decorative and also more humorous at some points, with very childlike kind of caricatures — not so much the serious romantic idea that a card might have right now.”

Laura Pedersen/University of Toronto

While they weren’t meant to last decades, the cards make a great primary source for students and professors researching social history, gender and sexuality, said David Fernandez, another rare book librarian.

A few have handwritten messages, and many have funny poems, like one about a farmer: "I like your health, your wealth — but darn! You smell too strongly of the barn."

Laura Pedersen/University of Toronto

Current events also sneak in, with airplanes and other military references making an appearance in cards from the first and second world wars.

A few will be on display at the library throughout the month of February; the rest of the collection will be catalogued in the coming months and open to the public.

Laura Pedersen/University of Toronto

While we now live so much of our lives online, and future historians could be faced with scrutinizing online dating profiles and email chains, Fernandez believes people are still leaving a paper trail behind with cards, especially on Valentine’s Day.

“So 200 years from now it will be interesting to see what people will be saying about us in the press and looking at the print culture materials that we produce," Fernandez said.

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