Home > McAllister Collection of Civil War Era Printed Ephemera, Graphics and Manuscripts
Civil War Prints & Ephemera
Comic Valentine Collection
Comic valentines, very popular in the United States beginning in the early 1840s, are quite different from the lacy, heart-shaped cards that one associates with the holiday today. The cartoons and verses poke fun at various occupations (lawyers, doctors, preachers, butchers, etc.), ethnicities (Black, Irish, German, etc.), human frailties (fat, thin, ugly, nosy, two-faced, etc.), romantic aspirations, habits and pastimes, political activities, and participation in the American Civil War. The Philadelphia collector John A. McAllister assembled the collection and donated it to the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1884. The Library Company continues to add to the collection. More...
In both the United States and England, the market for comic valentines rivaled that for sentimental valentines, with their sales numbers about equal in the 1840s and 1850s. Sentimental valentines were more expensive, ranging in price from twenty-five cents to thirty dollars. A single comic valentine cost about a penny, hence their other nickname "penny dreadfuls." "Dreadful" is an appropriate term, but "crude," both in content and printing, is perhaps more accurate. Many were printed from wood blocks, with the color added by hand (often with stencils). The later examples were reproduced lithographically, but imitated the look of woodcuts. Sometimes the same image was used more than once with different doggerel verse. The recipients typically threw them away, so few survive. Bibliographically, they are challenging because they rarely list the artists' or publishers' names or the date of publication. The illustration technique is not always obvious, even with magnification. Working under the NEH-funded McAllister Project, Linda Wisniewski scanned the valentines. During a 2006 internship funded by the Fels Foundation, Elizabeth Donaldson created the records for the collection. Thanks to Linda and Betsy, digital versions of these remarkable pieces of ephemera are available here for further study.