Sunday, February 7, 2010


Love Tokens From the Heart, The Golden Age of Valentines ©

By Polly Guerin, The Fashion Historian

Lacy and beribboned, gilded with hearts, intertwined and pierced by Cupid’s dart, “Love Tokens From the Heart” were the frou-frou confections of lavish sentimentality, which identify with the Golden Age of Valentines, the years 1830 to 1860. These lavish confections, spilling forth with fancy paper work and sentimental verse, expressed an era and a time when the delicate art of romance was heightened by the sending of charming valentine cards and greetings. So engaging is the custom that modern sentimentalists will be sending over a billion Valentine greetings, February 14th, making Valentine’s the second largest card-sending holiday.
THE POSTMAN COMETH A popular magazine in 1850 explained the significance of the expected Valentine: “But of all the clamorous visitations in expectation is the sound that ushered in…a Valentine. The knock of the postman on the door this day is light, airy, confident and befitting of one that bringeth good tidings. A blessing on St. Valentine, the patron saint of the day, fraught with so many heart flutterings and heart enjoyments!” As the postman’s footsteps were heard along the street on Valentine’s Day ladies awaited the tell-tale knock at their door, which signaled the momentous arrival of a sweetheart’s sentiments. To be passed by was a devastating personal experience as it was observed by one’s next door neighbor who was peeking out of the window and awaiting the post as well. So much for Victorian foibles! The custom of sending valentines to loved ones was so well established that there was practical help for swains whose feeling went deeper than words. If the muse did not inspire there were little books of love poems, called “valentine writers”, which were available for copying by lovers who could not conjure up an original rhyme. Commercial valentines were soon to lead the way to a prolific business that spread from England to America.
TWO HEARTS ENTWINED The first valentines were imported from England, where new graphic art techniques enabled publishers to produce valentines of extraordinary beauty, intricacy and delicacy. Of all the well-known makers in England and America two stand out above all others, Jonathan King of London and Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, the first lady of the American Valentines. The real inspiration behind Jonathan King’s business was his wife Clarissa who added glitter to cards simply by decorating them with powdered colored glass. King’s valentines were highly ornamented to catch the eye and prettily enhanced with fine net, lacy paper, silver and gold glitter, cupids, flowers and love birds. Valentine “bank notes” issued by the Bank of True Love were also in vogue at the time. Typically the sender promised to pay the sincere homage and never-failing devotion of an affectionate heart. The idea was pure fantasy and wit, but the notes were printed on actual bank note paper that looked so real that they very soon outlawed.
A VALENTINE HEROINE The history of valentine greetings in America has one special heroine—Esther Howland. Esther was the daughter of Southworth A. Howland who ran the largest bookstore and stationery shop in Worcester, Massachusetts. The well-educated young woman, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary was preparing to go into teaching, but when she saw a British valentine that her father had imported to introduce in his emporium, it sparked her artistic talent. Quite enchanted with the cards, Esther hit on the idea that she could make Valentines as pretty as the European kind, if not nicer, and set about doing so. When her brother, Allen, was scheduled to go on a horse-and-buggy sales trip to get orders for the next season Esther convinced him to take along a few samples of her cards. The handmade cards cost from $5 to $l0, a price that only the wealthy could afford, and the response was overwhelming. Esther expected her brother to sell $100 to $200 worth of the expensive cards. Instead he returned with orders for $5,000 worth. With such good sales results she was able to convince her family to let he go into business. The year was 1847. She persuaded her father to import embossed lacy paper and materials from England, and color pictures from a lithographer in New York. With all the material assembled, as well as artificial flowers, feathers, glitter, silk and lace, spun glass, colored papers, portraits and romantic scenes, Esther rounded up her “staff.” She took over a bedroom in the family home as a factory, creating prototyped designs for her helpers to copy. They worked in an assembly-line fashion. One person cut out pictures; another made backgrounds, and so on around the table the valentine confections were assembled as each girl added further embellishment. As time went on, Esther Howland's, assembly-line production of these Valentines did exceedingly well and the business expanded to a $100,000 a year enterprise. It was an astonishing accomplishment and huge sum for 1848.
COPYCATS EMERGE It was not long before other entrepreneurial individuals recognized a good thing and established similar businesses with valentine cards that bore a striking resemblance to Esther Howland’s. Legend has it that among one of her employees was George Whitney, who later established his own business. The striking resemblance of the Whitney valentines in decorative art collections today proves out the fact that Whitney’s valentines closely resemble those of Esther Howland, even to the small red “W” stamp at the back of each card, similar to the “H” used by Miss Howland. When her widowed father became deathly ill in 1880, his dutiful daughter gave up her business to be at her father’s side.
SHE BROUGHT ROMANCE TO MILLIONS By all accounts Esther Howland by Victorian standards was an attractive young woman and wore the fashionable attire, perhaps having her gowns made by a seamstress who copied styles form Godey’s Lady’s Book, the quintessential arbiter of style which featured colored fashion plates from England, selected by the venerable editor, Sarah Josepha Hale. With an excellent family background, a good education and a fine bearing, she was described as having an abundance of glossy brown hair, a high complexion and exquisite dress. One would have thought that many a beaux would have courted the First Lady of Valentines, but, sadly, she never had a sweetheart of her own and died a spinster in 1904. Lets toast the First lady of Valentines whose greetings lavished with lace; love and sentimentality were the epitome of a romantic bygone era. The Esther Howland award for a Greeting Card Visionary was established in 2001.

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