Esther persuaded her father, who was a stationer, to order a supply of large blank lace paper sheet and other valentine materials from England. When she had finished making a small assortment of samples, she persuaded her brother, who worked as a traveling salesman for their father, to take her cards with him.
He returned with five thousand orders and Esther set up shop in a spare room of the family home. She engaged a handful of her friends to help her and began the first assembly line production of American commercial valentines. Most of Miss Howland’s cards were so elaborate they had to be packed in boxes to protect the delicate confections. Their elaborateness was matched in their price, with the majority of them costing between $5 and $10, a considerable sum for the time.
Despite their cost, Miss Howland’s valentines became extremely popular. In 1880 she sold her business, which netted her over $100,000 a year, to another American valentine producer, the George C. Whitney Company.
By the end of the nineteenth century, improvements in color printing processes soon gave elaborate commercial valentines the preference over the home made sentiments. Two companies on either side of the Atlantic competed fiercely for the valentine market: Marcus Ward in England and America’s Lewis Prang, who perfected the graphic art of lithography. Prang also began trimming his valentines with silk fringe and soon this distinguishing feature replaced the lace paper borders on the most elegant and highly desired Victorian valentines.
Gazing upon a Victorian valentine is to return to a more romantic era. To hold one today, as fragile as a dream, is to know, as the nineteenth century poet Katherine Lee Bates said, “Old love is gold love, old love is best.”
I hope you have enjoyed our journey in the discovery of the Valentine.
Excerpts from Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance.