The Joy of Antique Valentines: Century-Old German Artworks

I was never much impressed with the products sold in drug store greeting card aisles. They always seemed so insipid and boring. Long ago, I gravitated toward birthday and holiday cards individually created by artists; earlier in my life, I even made my own wooden Christmas cards. And when my wife and I wandered antique shops, I was usually drawn toward the ephemera displays, where I first encountered the century-old “mechanical” Valentine cards made in Germany that I now give my wife each year. These photos of the cards in our growing collection of antique valentines; most date to the 1900-1929 period.

antique three-dimensional Valentine card - cherub, roses, robins, hearts, lace
Two 3D German-made cards with music and floral visual themes
View of sideways structure of century-old three-dimensional cards made in Germany

Originally created in 496 AD by an early pope determined to replace a pagan fertility festival with a day of evangelical piety, Saint Valentine’s day was named after a Christian martyr of the Roman era. The myth is that during his imprisonment, Valentine fell in love with the daughter of a guard and, just before he went to his beheading on Feb. 14, 278 AD, left her a note signed “Your Valentine.” That began what, over the centuries, grew into the popular custom of sending notes professing one’s romantic feelings on Feb. 14.

Antique valentine card with multiple layers and a dutch theme
Part of an ornate 1915 die-cut card made in Germany

By the late 1700s, made possible by early advances in the technology of printing, commercially produced Valentine cards became available. By the 1860s, the manufacture and sale of Valentine cards was a major business operation in both the U.S. and Europe. In Massachusetts, entreprenuer Esther Howland’s kitchen table start-up turned into a major industry that earned her the historical moniker “Mother of the American Valentine.”

Two antique die-cut cards made in Germany - cherubs, flowers, doves, flutes
Close up of a cherub playing a flute

By the final decade of the 1800s, artisans in Germany and Austria perfected mass production of three-dimensional “mechanical” Valentine cards. This was made possible by their development of advanced printing, die cutting, embossing and paper shaping technologies.

Two 3D valentine cards, one with "honeycomb" paper structure of a air baloon.
Sideways structural look at three layers antique German-made Valentine cards

These German and Austrian creations used paper structural elements in novel new ways to create what, in effect, were multi-layer three-dimensional paper sculptures. These cards were very popular throughout the U.S. during the period from 1900 to the end of the 1920s.

Rose-themed antique card from 1913, made in Germany.
Close-up of the bottom part of an ornate 3D card dating to 1913

Today, some of these surviving mechanical cards are worth thousands of dollars apiece as collectables. Others can be found in antique shops and online markets like eBay and Etsy for under $50. Search antique die-cut Germany Valentine.