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Thursday, November 4, 2021

Love From Worcester, Massachusetts

Esther Howland (American, 1828–1904), Valentine, 1847–1879, Collage of papers with embossment, gold leaf, chromolithograph, and letterpress,
courtesy Worcester Historical Museum

 Ask people what the city of Worcester is known for, and responses will likely run the gamut, from Harvey Ball’s yellow Smiley, to the city’s music scene, to its industrial roots. In the mid-19th century, the city also emerged as a manufacturing hub for commercial valentines, beginning with the entrepreneurial initiative of Esther Howland (1828-1904), the Mount Holyoke College-educated daughter of a local stationer.

      Howland is a storied figure, and verified accounts of her life can be difficult to extract from local lore. Various stories agree that she saw imported lace valentines from England in the 1840s, and through her father’s business, was able to fabricate her own valentines using imported lace, lithographed decals, and other products. The valentines that she assembled were intricate and quickly became popular.

Jotham W. Taft (American, 1816–1909), Valentine, about 1860s–1879,
collage of paperswith embossment, gold leaf, paint, and
chromolithograph, courtesy Worcester Historical Museum

      Howland was an innovative valentine-maker, who used paper “springs” to create three-dimensional layered valentines that she referred to as “lift-ups.” She also inserted colorful paper “wafers” under the lace top, to add pops of bright color. What is perhaps most remarkable is that Howland implemented an assembly system, in which the women who worked for her each tackled one task in the multi-step production of her elegant valentines. 

      Worcester proudly claims Howland as the first maker of commercial valentines in the area, although Grafton, Worcester’s next-door neighbor, boasts that their own commercial valentine-maker, Jotham W. Taft (1816-1909). Taft’s valentines can be more difficult to identify than Howland’s, because his Quaker parents disapproved of signing one’s own work. Howland and Taft’s accomplishments were roughly simultaneous, and in 1879, Howland formed the New England Valentine Company with Edward Taft, Jotham’s son.

New England Valentine Company (American, 1879–1881), Valentine, 1879–81,
collage of papers with embossment, gold leaf, chromolithograph,
and paint, Courtesy Worcester Historical Museum

Whitney Valentine Company (American, 1863–1942), Postcard Valentine, early 20th century, relief print and halftone on paper, courtesy 
Worcester Historical Museum

    Another legendary Worcester valentine manufacturer was the Whitney Valentine Company, founded when George C. Whitney (1842-1915) joined his family’s stationary business in 1863. This family-run business grew by leaps and bounds in the late 19th century, with Whitney buying out smaller greeting card manufacturers and their stock from around the east coast. In 1881, they absorbed Howland and Taft’s New England Valentine Company. The Whitney Company also began to print their own base designs (rather than assembling valentines from sourced materials as Howland and Taft had done), which greatly increased their scale of production. 20th-century Whitney valentines are recognizable through the style of children featured on them, which collectors refer to as “Campbell’s Soup Kids” due to their stylistic similarity to the advertising mascots designed by Grace Drayton in 1904, and they can be positively identified through the “Whitney Made” logo that was stamped on the back.

     In preparation for the exhibition LoveStories from the National Portrait Gallery, London (November 13, 2021 – March 13, 2022), the curatorial staff at the Worcester Art Museum realized that we wanted to incorporate this important local history into the gallery of great British portraits and famous love stories. While there are no Worcester valentines in the WAM’s collection, a generous loan from the Worcester Historical Museum allows us to host two rotations of historic valentines in a special case within the exhibition. There you will see beautiful examples of valentines by Howland, Taft, the New England Valentine Company, and the Whitney Valentine Company—love, from the Heart of the Commonwealth.

 By Olivia J. Stone, Curatorial Assistant


  1. Kerr, Joan P. “The Amorous Art of Esther Howland.” American Heritage Magazine. February 1982.
  2. Kreider, Katherine. Valentines With Values. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1996.
  3. Lee, Ruth Webb. A History of Valentines. New York, NY and London: The Studio Publications, Inc. in association with Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1952.
  4. Nutt, Charles. History of Worcester and Its People. Volume 3. New York, NY: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1919.

Special thanks for the expertise of the Worcester Historical Museum, especially Wendy Essery, Library and Archive Manager, and William D. Wallace, Executive Director, and for the teaching resources they so graciously provided.

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