Introduction

“What is love?” was the question Googled most frequently in 2014, while “how to kiss” topped the list of how-to queries. Though algorithms can respond to an elusive question with an overwhelming number of search results and a panel of ads for online dating services, the Newberry’s collection of artifacts, reflecting centuries of human behavior and understanding, may offer some genuinely romantic guidance in time for Valentine’s Day.

Love comes in all shapes and sizes, spanning the centuries and the globe–especially when expressed on paper. The tender dispatches delivered to loved ones on February 14 are the most familiar manifestations of love on paper. To understand the broader culture of these heart-felt, often heart-shaped missives, we have contextualized historic Valentines with an eclectic array of expressive forms, ranging from sincere proclamations and sentimental pictures to comic send-ups and cynical put-downs of love. The exhibition features handwritten letters and mass-produced messages; affectionate verses and anti-love tableaux; endearing confessions and graphic revelations of platonic, heterosexual, and same-sex adoration. This variety amounts to a statement not only about love, but about paper’s capacity to convey otherwise inexpressible feelings between people.

Love on Paper is the result of an experiment in organizing exhibitions at the Newberry: crowd-sourced curation. Most exhibitions develop under the direction of one or two curators. The objects and artifacts on view in Love on Paper, however, were selected—lovingly—by staff members throughout the library. The items on display thus reflect the many and varied areas of human interest and expertise, as well as the magnificent collection gathered under the Newberry’s roof.