By Lisa Capobianco
From red heart cutouts and cupids to hand-written poems to images of red roses, the Barnes Museum has displayed a variety of different Valentine’s cards throughout the month of February, featuring many of the original embossed stamped and postmarked envelopes that date back to as early as 1855.
These Victorian and early 20th century Valentines, displayed throughout the lower level of the homestead, were sent to family members of the Bradley Barnes family by various friends and relatives, most of which signed the cards anonymously with the date and the word “town” or “Southington.”
“They were mailed that day and delivered that day,” said Barnes Museum Curator Marie Secondo, adding that it was common not for the secret admirers to reveal their names in the cards in those days. “Back then it was such a romantic thing to show your affection.”
As a child, Bradley Barnes received a variety of Valentine’s cards and notes from secret admirers, some of which were sent from girlfriends from school, including Mable Ives, Secondo said. The museum also displays a valentine that Bradley’s mother, Alice, received from a secret admirer who wrote, “Your affection is my ambition,” in 1859.
Purchased for a few cents at a local store, many of the Valentine cards, printed blank inside, originally had a plain style, but people embellished them by gluing on flower-shaped cut-outs, doilies, or other images and hand-wrote their own message. A variety of the cards also featured three-dimensional images on the front.
“Valentine’s Day in those days must have been so romantic,” said Secondo, adding that Victorian and early 20th century Valentine’s cards were more personal during those time periods.
One card displayed in the exhibit was even addressed to “Fluffy Harriman Barnes,” the pet cat of the Bradley Barnes family. Sent from Columbus, Ohio in the 1920s, the front of the card featured a white cat with a heart on its leash—a Valentine from Fluffy’s original owner.
“I think it’s a pretty impressive collection,” said Secondo, referring to the entire Valentine ephemera exhibit.
The Barnes homestead also displays various cards and letters Bradley made exclusively for his parents on Valentine’s Day. Using a piece of paper from a pad he received one year from his grandmother, Bradley also wrote a Valentine’s letter to his parents during recess, including a poem at the end. At age nine, Bradley addressed a heart-shaped Valentine of a lock and key to his mother. At the age of 14, Bradley also drew a picture for his parents along with a short poem.
“[The drawings] look like he did them yesterday,” said Secondo, pointing to the original drawing Bradley made for his parents on Valentine’s Day.
As an adult, Bradley Barnes received numerous cards of affection from his wife Leila on Valentine’s Day, including one addressed with the message, “To My Hubby on Valentine’s Day.” Another card features the image of a woman holding a red heart adorned bearing the message, “Say something it’s up to you, Brad dearest, xxxxxx,” while her sweetheart hands her flowers.
“I like how she writes ‘Brad dearest,’ with kisses,” Secondo said. “He always gave her pink carnations for Valentine’s Day.”
Besides Valentine cards, the Barnes Museum has also displayed for the first time a collection of paper dolls from 1894 that Mrs. Bradley Barnes (Leila) received as a child,
and Bradley Barnes’ Circus cutouts from 1896.
“Back then, they really cherished the things they obtained over the years,” Secondo said. “These are the things the kids played with back then.”
Viewing the collection of paper dolls, Secondo said they are still in excellent condition even though they date back to the end of the 19th century. Besides collecting these dolls from companies like Hood’s Sarsaparilla, which sold remedies, Leila also made doll dresses using brown paper bags and doilies.
“They savored things from their past,” Secondo said.
By mailing in various labels from early products, Bradley received the circus collections for free from Richardson Silk Co. The collection, consisting of 24 circus pieces, has marketing advertisements printed on the reverse sides promoting their products. Between bears and elephants, the circus figures contained small clips on the back, so they could be arranged in various ring acts. The Circus products also include the original coupon offer to receive free tickets to the Barnum and Bailey Circus during their 1896 season by mailing in 50 tags from silk thread spools.
“This was special to him…and he just never found it in his heart to throw it away,” Secondo said.
Visitors can view the ephemera collections during regular museum tour hours, which are Monday-Wednesday and Friday from 1-5 p.m., and Thursdays until 7 p.m. and for large groups or private tours, arrangements in advance are available upon request. The museum will also be open Saturday, Feb. 22 from 1-5 p.m., but will be closed on Lincoln’s Birthday and President’s Day on February 17.