Lover’s Traditions in America:
Did you know that the American valentine was born through the creativity, inspiration, and ingenuity of Esther Allen Howland who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1828? She was both an American artist, writer, and printer. As an enterprising young woman, she was among the first to publish and sell valentines in the United States.
At 19, Esther who was a recent graduate from Mount Holyoke College in 1847, was sent very ornate English valentine from a business friend of her father. She was so fascinated and intrigued by the valentine that she wanted to make some of them herself. She believed she could design them and that they would be better and prettier than the one she received. With the help of her father, who owned a large book and stationery store in Worcester, MA, she began ordering and importing paper lace and floral decorations from vendors in England.
After receiving the supplies, she began designing and making samples of her cards. The fancy valentines were made with real lace, paper lace, flowers, and ribbons. With her designs completed, she asked her brother to help sell them on his sales trips for his father’s store. She wasn’t expecting him to sell very many initially. What a surprise when he returned with advance valentine orders for $5,000!
Her card creations were an instant hit. Despite their high cost — many of the cards sold for $5 to $10 each, and some truly extravagant ones, bedecked with ribbons, satin, and silk, cost up to $30 — the business boomed.
The demand for her designs was greater than she dreamed and exceeded the number she could make by herself. To meet the orders, she hired friends to help. Her first advertisement appeared in a Worcester paper, The Daily Spy, on Feb. 5, 1850.
The card business flourished despite her semi-retirement in 1866. She functioned from a wheelchair for the next 15 years due to a recurring knee injury.
Business grew rapidly and in 1879, The New England Valentine Company was born. She rented a building and moved the business. She published 31 pages of verse in a small book called The New England Valentine Co.’s Verse Book for 1879, and this book allowed a customer to choose the verse for the card. Her lacy valentines became renowned throughout the United States. She is credited with several innovations in valentine design. One was the brightly colored wafer of paper placed to give contrast under the white paper lace; another was the built-up shadow box that became popular in the latter part of her career.
The production and assembly line valentine card business that began in her home eventually led to a thriving business grossing $100,000 annually. In 1881, thirty-one years later, Esther retired to care for her father. She sold her thriving business to the George C. Whitney Company that patterned many of their cards in her famous style.
Unfortunately, Esther never married. Joan P. Kerr wrote, that ” she has been remembered as a “woman with high color and glossy chestnut hair,” one who “drove high-stepping horses and looked like an aristocrat. ” “Striking in appearance, she dressed in fashion and had facials,” recalled the daughter of one of Esther’s friends, adding that “not many had them in those days.” A younger picture of her is unavailable and the one shown is of her in her fifties that doesn’t do her justice.
In 1904, Esther died in Quincy, Massachusetts. After her death she was honored by being called “The Mother of the American Valentine.”
We know there had to be great satisfaction in producing, designing, and expressing personal sentiments for others. Esther’s own joy, happiness, and love were expressed through her cards. She was a gift that also gave her gifts away. That marvelous Valentine card tradition lives on in the U.S. in great part because of her enterprising spirit, dedication, and good old American ingenuity.
The origin of Valentine’s Day is disputed by many experts. Some say it originated from St. Valentine, a Roman, who was martyred for refusing to give up Christianity. He died on February 14, 269 A.D. Legend also says that while in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl — who may have been his jailer’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement. It is said that St. Valentine left a farewell note for her and signed it “From Your Valentine”.
There is another story that says under the rule of Emperor Claudius II, Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns. Claudius the Cruel was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military. He believed that the reason Roman men wouldn’t join was because they did not want to leave their loves or families. As a result, Claudius canceled all engagements and marriages in Rome.
Saint Valentine was a priest in Rome at this time. Realizing the injustice of the decree, both Valentine and Saint Marius aided the Christian martyrs by secretly marrying couples. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, he was apprehended and dragged before the Prefect of Rome. For his defiance, they condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs, and be decapitated. Saint Valentine suffered martyrdom on the 14th day of February about 270 A.D.
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, when lovers said or sang their Valentines. Over time, February 14th has become the date for exchanging love messages of all kinds, and it is a celebration of St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers. On this day poems, cards, flowers, candy and simple gifts are sent to secret loves and loved ones.
It is astounding to learn that valentine traditions have been on going since the Middle Ages and celebrated throughout the world. In our own country, isn’t it amazing that one woman has had such an impact upon the millions of Valentines sent annually?
View Esther’s card designs for Valentines and other occasions at the online museum where there are over 900 vintage cards displayed. It is interesting to see how cards have evolved over the years.
Read more: The Amourous Art of Ester Howland by Joan P. Kerr