First American Valentine

By Arthur W. Brayley





Victorian valentines

MOST people who buy the elaborate and artistic valentines that fill the shops early in February, although intent on honoring a quaint old custom, probably do not realize that the manufacture of valentines today is the result of a woman's cleverness and ingenuity in the early part of the [19th century]. It may interest them to know, therefore, that the first fancy valentine ever made in America was the work of Miss Esther A. Howland, who in making it not only achieved her fortune, but also established an entirely new industry in this country.


Victorian valentinesOF COURSE the old custom of observing the name-day of the Saint is much older than Miss Howland — is even older than America, if we may believe the encyclopedias. The kind of valentine sent, however, has varied, like other fashions, with the years. A century or two ago it was the custom to greet the favored one with gifts of the most practical character. Nowadays, even more frequent than the decorated cards or lace paper valentines, is the gift of flowers or sweets, gloves or jewelry. But in the early part of the 19th century lovers sent tokens prepared by their own hands, usually consisting of amatory messages printed or written on ornamental paper, and garnished with pictures of loves and doves, languishing damsels and adoring swains. Probably the oldest valentine in the country is of this kind and belongs to a private collection in Cleveland, Ohio. Its counterpart, directed in the same hand to another woman, is in the British Museum. This valentine is in the form of an ordinary sheet of paper about a foot square, folded for the post into squares of four inches. The seal with which it was closed is a badly drawn heart of red ink, now faded, as are the verses, to a pale pink. There are five sets of verses, each to be read by a further unfolding of the paper; the last is written around a gilt heart in the centre of the sheet.

Victorian valentinesThe popularity of missives of this sort led to the manufacture of lace and embossed paper in England in 1825, and later to the making of fancy valentines. One of the earliest of these now exists, and displays a gayly painted little house, with a green paper door a swing on its hinges to disclose a youth and maiden seated close together within, while Cupids disport themselves outside and bear the sentiment appropriate to the occasion.

IT WAS at this stage of progress in the manufacture of valentines that the earliest one to appear in America was sent to Miss Howland in 1849. It had an elaborate border of fine lace paper and was decorated with colored flowers cut out and pasted on. In the centre was a small pocket faced with green paper, within which was placed a small red-edged note containing the fervent sentiments appropriate to the season and the day.

Miss Howland lived at this time in Worcester, Massachusetts, where her father and three brothers conducted a large stationery business. She was graduated from Mount Holyoke Seminary the same year she received the valentine. It was the first of the kind she ever had seen, and she and her friends were so pleased with it that Mr. Howland determined to import a few of them from England. When they arrived Miss Howland became convinced that she could improve upon them. Procuring lace paper, colored paper, and paper flowers, she made two valentines. Pleased with the result she made a dozen or more designs, and asked her brother, who traveled for the firm, to take the samples with him on his next trip and see if he could obtain orders for them. He consented, and upon his return surprised his sister by handing her orders amounting to five thousand dollars.

She had hoped to receive orders for one hundred or two hundred dollars, but five thousand dollars represented work enough to keep her busy several years, and she hesitated before undertaking the task. Her father and brothers talked the matter over with her, and soon a plan of work was decided upon.

Victorian valentinesEmbossed paper was ordered from England; and Mr. Howland went to New York to buy colored pictures from the only lithographer in this country. When the material arrived Miss Howland invited several of her friends to assist her. One cut out pictures and kept them assorted in boxes. Another, with models before her, made the background of the valentines, passing them to another who further worked upon them. So they went from one hand to another until finally the last valentine called for in the orders was complete.

THE next year Miss Howland looked about for novelties, and was able to provide her brother with a large assortment of samples when he started on his usual trip. Many of these valentines were quite elaborate and costly, and among them was the first message of Dan Cupid of which satin or silk formed a part. One of the kind still exists as a reminder of a sad tragedy, probably the first that occurred in connection with this business. The young woman employed by Miss Howland to paint satin valentines formed the habit of moistening her brush with her lips, by which act she absorbed so much of the paint that she died from its effects.

Victorian valentinesThe second year the number of orders was more than doubled, and so was the working force in the factory. In time quantities of enameled colored pictures and other ornaments were imported from Germany; but as these had to be cut out with scissors the enterprising woman had a set of dies made for that purpose. She then conceived the idea of embossing the little lithographic ornaments, and wrote to the members of the firm in Germany telling them of her plan, and that she would have the cutting and embossing dies made and sent to them at their expense. The idea was a new one, and they desired the credit of originating it, so they declined Miss Howland's offer, and had dies made in their own country. A few months later embossed and cut pictures were on the market, but the only advantage the originator of the plan received was in being able to buy them in the more convenient form.

THE fame of the Worcester valentines spread all over the country, and the business increased so rapidly that in a few years Miss Howland was sending out more than one hundred thousand dollars' worth of goods. One firm in New York, which was using more than twenty-five thousand dollars' worth of her valentines annually, made her a liberal offer to control the output. Failing in this, the firm tried to buy the business, but this offer was also refused. While still engaged actively in the manufacture of valentines Miss Howland met with an accident which would have compelled a woman of less courage and enterprise to retire from business. She fell on an icy sidewalk and injured herself so that for years she was obliged to superintend her business while seated in a wheel-chair. She continued her work, however, until her father became ill and required constant attention. Then, considering that her place was by his side, she gave up her occupation for the purpose of caring for him. The business was purchased by several of her employees, one of whom conducts it today in Worcester, the place where it originated and grew from its small beginning to the proportions of a valuable manufacturing industry.