In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, the Library Company of Philadelphia has alerted bibliophiles to its collection of nineteenth-century comic valentines, donated in 1884 by collector John A. McAllister and just digitized last year, with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Samuel S. Fels Fund.
The valentines fall into the category of items from the past that look familiar at first glance but turn out to be deeply alien on closer scrutiny. If you comb through the Library Company’s image database (click the box for the ‘Comic Valentine Collection’ database, and then enter a search term; I recommend ‘gay author’ and ‘tom-boy girl,’ for starters, though ‘rampaging stranger’ is not to be missed), you’ll find the occasional pink ribbon, red heart, and cupid, but you’ll also find a mystifyingly brutal humor, based on scorn of all social types, ethnicities, and classes. No one is brave enough, modest enough, rich enough, genteel enough, or gender-appropriate enough to deserve love. Book-binders, book-keepers, and book-folders all fail, as do politicians, stone-cutters, and novel readers. It’s probably just as well for romance that the card is no longer in circulation that reads, "You dirty, nasty little flirt / Stay at home— not gad the street / And speak to every loafer you meet," for example.