Worcester, MA, the once-bustling industrial metropolis 45 minutes west of Boston, where I live, is enormously proud of its rather peculiar list of "famous firsts", including barbed wire, shredded wheat, the monkey wrench, the birth control pill, the first perfect game in major league baseball, the first liquid-fueled rocket and the ubiquitous yellow Smiley Face icon (starring in a soon-to-be published tell-all book "The Saga of Smiley", printed by the Worcester Historical Museum and written by me.
And every year, about this time, you hear about how Worcester produced the first commercial valentines in this country thanks to a foresighted young woman named Esther Howland, known as the "Mother of the Valentine."
Esther Howland (1828-1904) attended Mount Holyoke at the same time as Emily Dickinson. She was the daughter of a successful Worcester stationer and, in 1847, she received a frilly English valentine that inspired her to ask her father to order materials from England so that she could assemble her own. She then convinced her brother, a salesman for the company, to show a few of her valentines on his sales rounds.
The initial demand for her valentines was overwhelming and Esther gathered some of her friends to help her assemble the valentines, seating them around a long table on the third floor of her home. The company was eventually earning $100,000 -- a phenomenal success.
Esther is considered significant because, according to historians, she was among the first commercially successful women overseeing a female-run business, and she basically created the assembly-line system, paying the local women "liberally".
She introduced layers of lace, three-dimensional accordion effects, and insisted that the verses be hidden inside, something you had to hunt for. She had her staff mark the back of each valentine with a red "H".
In the Victorian era, Valentines were wildly popular and the elaborate cards were scrutinized for clues -- even the position of the stamp on the envelope meant something. Often the valentine was intended as a marriage proposal.
On Feb. 14, 1849, Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousin,
"The last week has been a merry one in Amherst, & notes have flown around like snowflakes. Ancient gentlemen & spinsters, forgetting time & multitude of years, have doffed their wrinkles - in exchange for smiles..."
In 1879 -- after 30 years in business--Esther merged with Edward Taft, the son of Jotham Taft, a North Grafton valentine maker. Together they formed the New England Valentine Co. (and their cards were marked "N.E.V.Co.")
This is where Esther Howland's title of "Mother of the Valentine" begins to get a little shaky.
It seems, upon much study, that Edward Taft's father, Jotham Taft of North Grafton, a small village near Worcester, started the commercial valentine business in the U.S. even before Miss Howland did, but he didn't like to talk about it because the Taft family were strict Quakers and Jotham Taft's mother sternly disapproved of such frivolity as Valentines. (Full disclosure -- I live in North Grafton, about a stone's throw from where Taft worked.)
In 1836, Jotham Taft married Sarah E. Coe of Rhode Island and two years later they welcomed twin sons. But in 1840, one of the twins died suddenly, leaving Mrs. Taft prostrate with grief. Jotham decided to take his wife and surviving son to Europe with him on a buying trip for the stationer who employed him, and while in Germany, he bought many valentines supplies -- laces, lithographs, birds and cupids.
When he returned, Taft began making valentines with his wife's help, and in 1844--three years before Esther Howland graduated from college--he opened a valentine "factory" in North Grafton (then called New England Village.) But because of his mother's disapproval, Taft never put his own name on the valentines -- only "Wood" (his middle name) or "N.E.V." for "New England Village". Some believed that Taft trained Elizabeth Howland as one of his workers before she opened her own factory
Taft and Howland merged into the New England Valentine Co. in 1879 and a year later, Esther's father became ill and she left her business to care for him. After he died, she moved in with one of her brothers and she passed away in 1904.
Unfortunately, despite all the couples who presumably found their true love thanks to Esther's creations, the "Mother of the Valentine" never married.
In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the combined business of Taft and Howland and it became The Whitney Co, which dominated valentine production for many years. Instead of cards laboriously made by hand, Whitney turned to machine- printed valentines and eventually added postcards in the 1890's. The designs, featuring children who resembled the "Campbell Soup " kids, were wildly popular, although more often exchanged by children than adult lovers, and in 1942 the Whitney factory closed, as a result of wartime paper shortages
(The valentines above, from my collection, are German and English-made -- sadly not by Howland or Taft.)