The History of Valentine Day

In ancient times, February 14th was the festival of Lupercalia-when young men drew names of young women in lottery fashion, and couples partied until exhausted. After Christianity spread throughout the western world, religious leaders worked to end such pagan festivals. In 429 A.D. the ruling pope renamed February 14th Saint Valentine’s Day for a priest associated with noble and virtuous love. Valentine had been imprisoned for performing wedding ceremonies for Roman soldiers because, once married, they were less willing to go to war. While awaiting his execution, Valentine formed a friendship with the jail keeper’s blind daughter. On February 14th in 270 A.D.—the day he was beheaded—he wrote a short note to his new friend and signed it “from your Valentine.”

The custom of sending valentines carried across the ocean with immigrants from England and the continent. The earliest surviving American valentines date to the mid-18th century. Early makers used pen-and-ink drawings, watercolors, and pin pricks to create decorated surfaces, cut-outs, and often wrote emotional verse inside. These valentines were heartfelt labors of love—folded, sealed with wax, and hand delivered. By the 19th century, cards included verses glued inside and were more often placed in envelopes and sent by mail.

The advent of the great machine age in the 1840s allowed for design of new styles of valentines.  Most significant was the machine-printed lithograph. Lithographic valentines featured pre-printed romantic verses, quaint scenes of young lovers, scenic vistas, and cupids. By the early 20th century, valentines were primarily four-color, fully printed cards that were occasionally decorated with traditional laces and ornaments. Delicate hand-made creations with applied bits of paper and lace had disappeared, replaced with relatively inexpensive, mass-produced cards.

Today on Valentine’s Day sweethearts display affection through beautiful cards with sentimental messages, red roses, and perhaps a romantic dinner out. While verses have changed, the sentiment remains the same. These examples of Worcester-made valentines are from the extensive collection in the archives of Worcester Historical Museum.
To view more valentines, visit the museum library. There are thousands of valentines; below is a gallery of a few selections.

The History of Valentines in Worcester

For nearly 100 years, Worcester was the center of the commercial valentine industry in the United States. It is generally agreed that Esther Howland was the first to design and manufacture valentines in Worcester. Her parents, Southworth and Esther Allen Howland moved from Plymouth to Worcester in 1821 and her father soon became the leading stationer, book publisher, and book seller in town. Esther was born in 1828, the fourth of seven children and the only daughter. She attended Mount Holyoke College, the first women’s college in the country, and was among the earliest female college graduates in America. As a college-educated, self-employed businesswoman in the mid-nineteenth century, Esther Howland was a bit ahead of her time.

Esther Howland (1824 – 1904)

According to local folklore, in 1847 Esther received an English valentine from one of her father’s business associates, and that inspired her career. Esther experimented with designs of her own and persuaded her father to order fancy papers, laces, and trimmings from his suppliers in England and Germany so that she could begin making valentines. Her brother, who worked as their father’s traveling salesman, agreed to take her sample cards on the road to collect orders. Supplies and orders soon arrived, and Esther recruited friends to assemble cards in a third-floor room at the Howland family residence, 16 Summer Street. Esther’s business proved to be a quick and enduring success. Her valentine production continued at 16 Summer Street until 1879, when she joined in partnership with Edward Taft, forming the New England Valentine Company located at 425 Main Street. The partnership was brief: by 1880 Esther retired to devote herself entirely to the care of her infirmed father. In 1881 George C. Whitney bought the company. After her father’s death, in 1882, Esther chose to live quietly with her brother Charles in Quincy, Massachusetts, rather than reactivate her career.

Valentine Assembly on Summer Street

Jotham Wood Taft 1816-1910

While it is generally agreed that Esther Howland was the first to make valentines in Worcester, the first maker in America has long been the subject of debate. According to Taft family folklore, this claim belongs to Jotham Wood Taft. Some family members, in fact, credit him with teaching his friend Esther Howland the art of creating beautiful valentines.

Jotham Taft was born in Grafton, in 1816, to Quakers Joel and Lovisa Fisher Taft. In 1836 he married Sally Coe of Ashford, Connecticut. Jotham found work as a stationer and printer, and bis employer sent him to England and the continent in 1839 to purchase supplies and while abroad he became fascinated with valentine cards. Upon his return, Jotham and his wife began crafting delicate valentines in their home. Jotham did not sign or advertise his valentines because his Quaker parents so objected to his making them. Still, the business thrived and it soon moved into larger rented quarters in New England Village, later renamed North Grafton.

Family accounts suggest that valentine making was a life-long career for Jotham and son Edward. After forming a partnership with Esther Howland in 1879, Jotham’s son Edward was listed in the Worcester city directories as making valentines at the New England Valentine Company at 425 Main Street, but he continued to reside in Grafton and apparently continued making valentines with his father there as well. In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the company and incorporated it into his larger business. He also bought Jotham Taft’s business in  New England Village.

Jotham and Edward Taft’s valentines were, like Esther Howland’s, based on English examples. They used imported materials to craft three-dimensional cards of paper, lace, and decals.

George C. Whitney 1842-1915

Although George C. Whitney eventually became the sole owner of the largest greeting card company in the world, the family business was started by an older brother, Sumner, who opened a wholesale stationery store at 218 Main Street in 1858, where he and his wife sold their hand-made valentines. Edward Whitney became a partner the following year, and assumed full management when Sumner died in 1861. George, the youngest of the brothers, joined the company in 1863, after receiving an honorable discharge from the Civil War. The brothers worked together as the Whitney Valentine Company until 1869, when Edward withdrew from the partnership.

The Whitney’s business proved to be highly successful. George Whitney expanded the operation.  By 1888 he had bought out ten major American valentine producers, including Esther Howland and Edward Taft’s New England Valentine Company, and Jotham Taft’s Grafton business. Importantly for the economic health of the operation, he acquired the equipment to produce his own embossed papers, full-color ornaments, and printed verses, thereby freeing himself from dependence on foreign suppliers.

George Whitney’s early valentines so closely resembled those made by Esther Howland that it is nearly impossible to tell them apart. Both designers used imported materials, often from the same British manufacturing source – colored paper wafers, “lift up” parts or ”springs,” scalloped edges, multiple lace layers and swags or flowers. By the early twentieth-century, Whitney valentines were full-color, fully-printed cards. By the 1930s, the delicate, applied bits of paper and lace had completely disappeared from factory-made cards, replaced with relatively inexpensive, mass­-produced valentines marked ”Whitney Made/Worcester, Mass.” on the backs.

After George Whitney died in 1915, his son Warren took over management. The George C. Whitney Company continued to prosper until 1942, when a paper shortage during World War II made it difficult to secure supplies for non-essential industry. At that point, Warren Whitney liquidated the family business. For many years, it was housed at 67 Union Street, a factory building erected by Stephen Salisbury III in the late nineteenth-century.

The George C Whitney Company