14 February 2013

Miss Howland's Valentines

Valentine’s Day came to America through imitation fueled by growing Anglophilia in the mid-1800s, and Yankee merchants who also wanted to profit from the day.  The romanticism and sentimentality that marked 19th century society certainly provided a fertile field for these observances to take root and grow.  By the 1840s, cards and gift books of love poetry like The Belle’s Valentine Writer were available in larger towns and cities.  Not everyone approved of the strange new practice, however.  On February 14, 1848 student Emily Dickinson wrote her brother from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, “Monday afternoon Mistress Lyon arose in the hall and forbade our sending any of those foolish notes called valentines.”  

Esther Allen Howland (1828-1904) of Worcester, Massachusetts graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1847 and was thus spared Mistress Lyon’s ban on sending Valentines.  Miss Howland went on to play a large role in popularizing the holiday… and making it profitable.   Her father, Southworth Howland, was proprietor of a large stationery store and bookshop at 135 Main Street in Worcester.  Esther admired the handful of ornate, English-made Valentine’s greetings for sale in her father’s shop.  Confident that she could design and make even nicer fancy cards, in 1848 she asked her father to order high quality paper and lithographs from England and New York.  Her brother then showed samples of the cards she made to stationery customers on his sales trips both to Boston and the hinterland, and returned with over $5,000 worth of orders!  Working out of the family home on Summer Street, Esther hired girls to help cut and paste together her elaborate cards, decorated with ribbons and paper lace.  These small works of art sold for up to ten dollars apiece, better than two week’s wages for a farm hand!  Yet demand increased in the boom years of the mid-1800s, and the entire third floor of the house became a card factory.  By 1850 Esther Howland advertised her cards in the (Worcester) Daily Spy newspaper.  She was selling between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of cards annually by the 1860s.  (Old Sturbridge Village has a handful of Valentine’s cards and letters, all dating from the 1850s, but alas, none seem to be by Esther Howland.)

Although Valentine’s Day was nothing special in New England before the 1840s, what is now the second-biggest day for greeting card sales is largely the legacy of a young woman from central Massachusetts.   

— from the archives of "Old Sturbridge Village"

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