Valentine’s Day is Mary Ann Sandoro’s annual excuse to pull out her collection of 600 valentines, bits and pieces of bygone Buffalo that chronicle a stationery tradition.
They range from a fancy, but empty, lacy envelope, clearly postmarked “Buffalo, Feb. 14, 1859,” to one of her favorites: a frightened-looking woman with her arms around the neck of a man gleefully driving a 1905-era touring car. The radiator opens to a bouquet of fold-out tissue flowers just above the caption, “Trust me at the wheel / Of the matrimonial automobile.”
“They’re really kind of awesome,” said Sandoro. “It’s like paper engineering.”
The ritual exchange of paper love notes carries on this week with shoppers out scouting for good cards to give Thursday.
In this digital age, paper cards still have a beloved edge. Some 145 million such valentines are expected to be sold this year.
Sandoro, a former curator of exhibits at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society, said she can’t help but be attracted to the old-fashioned bits of paper art, poetry, puns and whimsy. Her husband agrees.
“It reminds us that people had the same feelings 100 or 200 years ago,” Jim Sandoro said. “It’s just so much fun to relate to that.”
The Sandoros founded the Michigan Avenue Pierce-Arrow Buffalo Transportation Museum. In that spirit, about a quarter of their valentines – culled from local estate sales, flea markets and eBay – are car-focused.
One card, from the 1920s, shows a couple out for a drive alone, after a fold makes a cross-looking mother disappear. “Gee, we’re happy aren’t we? For now we’re two instead of three.”
One of Mary Ann Sandoro’s favorites comes from about 1910, the “golden” era, when cars had brass fittings and trim. A handmade cardboard red heart has a wee tin car laced to the center as a stand-in for the car-pun in this hand-lettered note: “My Valentine, I don’t think you [‘auto’] forget me. From Fred.”
Sandoro admits she and her husband celebrate with dinner out rather than cards, but the Greeting Card Association says valentine sales are still strong – with humor as a growing category.
Traditionally, when economic times are tough, levity sells, said Kathy Krassner, director of communications for the association.
Overall, association members report that greeting card sales have dropped from an annual 7 billion a decade ago to a current 6.5 billion. Still, paper’s charm is irreplaceable, Krassner said. Cards, she said, are “such an ingrained part of our culture,” they’re not going away.
“There’s something about having a tangible printed card handed to you or mailed to you that has more emotional impact and value than any electronic greeting ever could. It’s getting something real that becomes a keepsake.”
A small collection of century-old valentine keepsakes purchased by a former curator are stored in a thin box in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library’s rare book room. They fold out and come in layers of paper lace, with light jokes: A pair of pop-up robins stand against a backdrop of little blue forget-me-nots; a tissue paper honeycomb opens as the “dust” beneath a broom with a message, “sweep me off my feet”; and a girl tries to catch floating red hearts with a butterfly net. A penny postcard of a boy in a sailor suit beckons, “Be my Valentine and I’ll break the news to mother.”
“They’re just so elaborate,” said Amy Pickard, the rare-book curator.
They are a reminder of a bygone era of craftsmanship. “It just seems such a shame that we don’t go to the trouble of doing such things,” Pickard said.
At Great Arrow Graphic card factory and shop, on the fifth floor of the Tri-Main Center on Main Street, valentines account for 7 to 10 percent of the national business for the company that specializes in silk-screen designs.
This year’s options – sold at Wegmans and the Lexington Co-op, among other places – include the straightforwardly sentimental, like the picture of a black-and-white cat couple on a bench, tails entwined.
Here, too, light humor and puns have been more popular, like the pink owl on a tree saying, “Who loves you, baby!?”
Great Arrow, which includes individual artist credits on the back of each card, considers Valentine’s Day a favorite holiday, along with Halloween, because there are so many ways to interpret it, said company Vice President Lisa Samar. “It can be what you want it to be,” she said.
At the Positively Main Street gift shop on Elmwood Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, Paul O’Hern was at the counter paying for a card with two birds on a branch and the Herman Hesse line, “If I know what love is, it’s because of you.”
O’Hern occasionally lightly protests the day’s obligations – “just to be difficult,” his wife insists. Even though he doesn’t eat the candy he usually gets, he likes the cards.
“Anytime people show affection for each other,” he said, “it’s a good thing.”