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The Valentine in America – A History February 1, 2010

Posted by Jill Renee in : Just Jill , trackback

While Valentine’s Day had been celebrated in some form since the third century, A.D., it did not catch on with any momentum in the United States until the 1840s.  A holiday with a variety of possible beginnings, Valentine’s Day evolved into a holiday used to celebrate love and affection.  People would give trinkets and cards, and in the 1840s a woman named Ester Howland started the first wave of mass-produced valentine greetings in the U.S.

Esther Howland Valentine, circa 1850: "Weddings now are all the go, Will you marry me or no"

Born in 1828, Howland graduated from college in 1847 and shortly after received a beautiful and intricate Valentine’s greeting from a business contact of her father’s.  This man was English – the tradition of exchanging cards and gifts to celebrate Valentine’s Day was a mainstream practice in England and the rest of Great Britain by the mid-eighteenth century – and his card to Howland gave her a grand idea.

Esther Howland ordered fancy paper, lace, and flowery decorations from England and started making valentines.  She spread the word about the practice, and started taking orders for custom and stock-style valentines.  The response was tremendous, and she was not able to produce the goods for all the orders she had.  She asked friends to help her assemble the cards, and put out her first ad in The Daily Spy, a Worcester paper, in 1850.

Again, the response was tremendous.  She set up an assembly line in her house to assemble this first year’s worth of valentines, and she eventually set up shop for a business that would bring in $100,000 every year.

Though Howland used a lot of traditional English designs in her cards, she did come up with a few things on her own.  The lace paper that she ordered from England was par for the course in Great Britain.  Howland wanted to add some punch to the look of the card, so she started putting bright red or pink paper behind the lace to show the intricacy of the lace paper (which was copied from handmade tatted lace).

Another style that became popular in the latter part of Howland’s career was the shadow-box style.  These cards had a built-up section with a 3-D design.  Shortly after these successful cards, Howland sold her business to George C. Whitney, who went on to manufacture the necessary materials for valentines in the United States, rather than continuing to order them from England.  Whitney stayed true to Howland’s designs, and modern-day historians are hard-pressed to distinguish between the two, naught for Whitney’s distinguishing trademark of a red “W.”

Prior to Howland’s business, people in the United States who wanted to send Valentine cards to their loved ones either had to order them from England or make them personally.  Certain people who showed a talent for this craft would then be commissioned to make cards for others, but it was Howland who first mass-produced the valentines for American customers.

Today over one billion valentine cards are purchased annually.  Along with cards, people buy gifts for their loved ones on Valentine’s Day.  These gifts range from small tokens of affection to large items, like diamond engagement rings or expensive quality jewelry.


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