First American Valentine
By Arthur W. Brayley
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.
OF 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.
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.
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.