A Valentine Message

A Valentine Message

By Elizabeth A. Mullen ~

White female nurse bandaging a broken heart.
A Valentine Message, ca. 1913.
National Library of Medicine #101612299

Valentine’s Day has a complex and debated history.  A Valentine as a term of endearment has been traced back to Chaucer’s time in the Middle Ages while our current tradition of giving printed paper Valentines began in 18th century England.  By the Victorian era it was a wildly popular practice and was imported to America.  The valentine pictured above is postmarked 1913, the year the newly founded Hall Brothers (now Hallmark) first offered Valentines for sale.

This postcard, from the National Library of Medicine’s Zwerdling Collection of nursing postcards, is featured in the Library’s recent exhibition Pictures of Nursing, which examines how postcard images are informed by cultural values; ideas about women, men, and work; and by attitudes toward class, race, and national differences. Commercial postcards and greeting cards treat images of nurses similarly to the ways in which images of women are treated in other contemporary popular art forms. Many early Valentine cards show nurses mending broken hearts and nurses have often been cast as romantic figures.  On Valentine and “get well” cards during the 19th century, the use of word play and innuendo often revealed an undercurrent of sexual fantasy. Since the 1980s, nurses have become far more aware of their public image and they are keen to update the archetypes that have dominated in the past. Nursing is skilled work and nurses are expert members of the modern health care team.

Photo of Elizabeth Mullen outside in front of a building.Elizabeth A. Mullen is Manager of Web Development and Social Media in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine

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