The month of February invariably provides lots of exposure to heart symbols and all of their sentimental meaning. And that’s not such a bad thing; the positive associations we make with even the most simple heart doodle add a bit of warmth to our lives during this late winter season.
So it is as good a time as any to pile on a little more heart imagery by taking a retrospective look at hearts as a decorative motif in antiques that we’ve bought and sold over the years.
Let’s start with a brief exploration of how the heart symbol emerged and endures.
The Heart Shape’s Origins
For centuries, scholars of science and philosophy believed that the heart was the actual physical center of both emotion and reason. This belief emerged in part when early autopsies revealed that a majority of the body’s internal pathways of nerves and veins led to the heart, so it was an understandably logical conclusion drawn as early as the 2nd century BC.
Regarding the heart as the control center for human feelings such as love was still the predominant scientific and popular perspective in the Middle Ages. So when anatomical drawings of that time period started portraying the human heart as three chambers with a dent in the middle, the pointed heart icon was born and imbued with emotional symbolism.
Despite now knowing that feelings of love actually originate in the complex neural circuitry and chemical transmitters of the brain, not in the blood-pumping heart muscle at the core of our being, the ideographic heart shape that we see most abundantly on Valentine’s Day has stood the test of time across centuries and cultures as a symbol of the positive emotions of love, joy and compassion.
Hearts in Antiques: Rustic, Native American and Folk Art
Given the ubiquity of the heart graphic in the universe of symbols and design that saturate our visual lives, it is not surprising that they are well represented in antique objects as well.
The antiques that we specialize in — rustic furnishings as well as Native American and folk art — were generally made by individual craftspeople who were highly skilled artisans, whether they practiced their craft as a profession or as a creative outlet.
When we’ve encountered heart designs within these genres, we’ve usually assumed that the maker was intentionally evoking positive associations with the emotions of love and affection, whether making a personal gift or an object to sell.
But surely sometimes craftspeople incorporated hearts just as a pleasing geometric or organic shape that could be formed from the raw materials they were fashioning into a useful or decorative object.
So let’s explore a range of heart motifs in antiques with 10 examples from our past inventory.
1. Folk Art Hooked Rug
This wool hooked rug made in the 1940s is all about geometry and color, featuring circles, diamonds and ovals along with hearts.
Given the red and pink color choice for the hearts, we surmise that the maker of this rug was using hearts in the traditional way to express love for the person to whom she gave it.
2. Tramp Art Frame
The red hearts decorating this tramp art frame relate to the playing card “hearts” suit, given that the other decorative cutouts are clubs, diamonds and spades. Although some historians trace playing card symbols to representing four major aspects of human nature, with hearts representing love, others credit the suits as representing the four seasons, four classes of society, and so on.
Whether or not the frame maker intended the hearts to evoke love or simply just the fun of card games, the red hearts will still speak to most viewers as a symbol of something positive.
3. Model Paddle Brackets
These lovely paint-decorated model canoe paddles have unique heart-shaped wall display brackets. Both the paddles and the brackets are undoubtedly decorated with images that have meaning in the maker’s own life.
The heart shape of the brackets helps convey that the maker loved everything represented on the objects, among which were a dog and a special place in nature.
4. Twig Stand
This stand is the most exuberant example of a heart motif among the antiques that we’ve owned. The heart is wider than both the top and the base of the stand, unabashedly calling attention to itself.
The willow twigs from which the heart was made are particularly conducive to bending into such a distinctive shape. Whether the craftsperson made this as a gift or to sell is anyone’s guess.
5. Mosaic Twig Table: Hearts and Star
This two tables featured as #5 and #6 in our list are among the finest examples of rustic mosaic twigwork that we’ve handled, and they both happen to feature heart designs.
A very skilled craftsperson made the table above. It required both mastery of design and execution to form twigs into hearts, a star and chevrons, as well as to create a coherent, symmetrical whole.
The hearts are particularly impressive because organic circular shapes are harder to make with these types of twigs than linear designs.
6. Mosaic Twig Table: Hearts and Diamonds
This mosaic twig table top has a graphically sophisticated square-within-a-circle design accented with diamonds, ovals and hearts.
The creator of this piece of extraordinary mosaic twigwork was proud enough to include his* (*presumably) initials both within the top twigwork and as a signature underneath the table top. This hints at the table being made for someone the woodworker knew, most likely a family member.
It is dated 1860 which is impressively early for rustic design.
7. Old Hickory Sideboard
Old Hickory introduced a distressed pine series in the 1930s that also incorporated decorative elements such as ropes and metal rings. Some of the pieces from that series (such as wall shelves) also had circular cutout designs, but this is the only piece we’ve had that features a prominent heart-shaped cutout.
Given that this was a manufactured design, it is unlikely that the team of woodworkers who made it put a lot of emotional intent behind their work, but its owners in the decades since it was made might nevertheless have found it to be a personally “heart-warming” design.
8. Birch Bark Mocuck: Heart-shaped Leaves
The heart designs on this Native American etched birch bark mocuck are derived from nature, specifically representing the heart-shaped leaves of northern wood sorrel, a common plant of the forested home territories of Woodlands tribes.
The front and sides of the lidded container show the shamrock-like leaves in full, but the top reduces the image to a single heart-shaped leaflet, perhaps to connect the plant image from nature to a symbol of human emotion.
9. Birch Bark Mocuck: Fiddlehead Hearts
The double-curve or fern fiddlehead design, such as is etched on the birch bark container pictured here, was an important and prominent element in early Northeastern Woodland tribes’ artwork.
By pairing two fiddleheads coming together at a pointed apex, the maker of this mocuck seemed to be intentionally evoking the traditional heart symbol, as well as the cultural significance of an abstracted representation of one of nature’s most graceful forms.
The two birch bark pieces we’ve shown as examples of heart-shaped plant motifs bear an interesting connection to a lesser-known theory of the origin of the heart symbol’s association with romantic love: the perfectly heart-shaped seed pod of the now-extinct giant fennel plant called Silphium which ancient Greeks and Romans used as a contraceptive. So hearts, plants and romantic love have a long history of association.
10. Beadwork Heart
Our final example is a Seneca beaded bag with a heart featured prominently at its center. The beaded designs on this bag also include stylized fiddleheads, flowers and other traditional iconography. It is an interesting juxtaposition of culturally significant Native American symbols with a fancy object made to appeal to Euro-American tastes and trends.
Perhaps the beaded heart called to the minds of both the fashionable lady who purchased this bag, and the Native woman who created it, thoughts of their loved ones.
Hearts Passing Hands
It is uplifting to think that the maker of an object who incorporated a heart into its decorative design decades or centuries ago may have been declaring positive emotions towards someone in particular, or was simply (intentionally or not) passing along good sentiments to whomever acquired the piece.
Perhaps our small virtual gallery exhibit will inspire you to seek out an antique with heart shapes to give to your own sweetheart, or just to live with as an object that subtly radiates a positive emotional presence in your own home.