Worcester Historical Museum

From Your Valentine

A Whitney Valentine

The celebration of St. Valentine's Day most likely had its origins in ancient Rome. Legend tells us that Emperor Cladius II sentenced Valentinus to death for having assisted Christians, who were being persecuted at the time. During his captivity, Valentinus befriended his jailer's blind daughter, whose sight he reportedly restored. A message written to her on the eve of his death, February 14 in the year 297, was signed "From Your Valentine." By the 1600s the custom of sending "valentines" on February 14 was well established in Northern Europe.

America Loves Valentines
The first American valentines, dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were hand made, using pen and ink and watercolor, and paper cutouts. By the 1840s, European valentines-with their hand-colored lithographs, elaborate lace trimming and sentimental verses-had become popular in America. They became the prototype for American valentines, inspiring three Worcester people to start valentine businesses of their own. By the 1860s, Esther Howland, Jotham Taft , and George C. Whitney were all producing valentines in Worcester, which was to become the center of the American valentine industry by the late 19th century.

George C. Whitney Co.

George Whitney

Getting Started
Although George C. Whitney became sole owner of the largest greeting card company in the world, the business was actually started by his brother. Sumner Whitney opened as a wholesale stationery store in 1858 at 218 Main Street, where he and his wife sold their hand-made valentines. A second brother, Edward, joined Sumner in 1859, while George was serving in the Civil War. Following Sumner's death in 1861, Edward ran the business alone until George joined him in 1863. They worked together until 1869, when Edward withdrew from their partnership.

Early Valentines

Howland Mark
Whitney Mark

Whitney's early valentines so closely resembled those made by Esther Howland that one could not tell them apart if it were not for the Howland "H" and the Whitney "W" stamped in red on the backs of most of them. Both Whitney and Howland used imported materials, often from the same British manufacturing source. Both designers used colored paper wafers and "lift-up" parts or "springs." Other shared characteristics included scalloped edges, multiple lace layers, and swags of flowers.

Full Speed Ahead
By 1888 George Whitney had bought out ten major American valentine producers. He also freed himself from dependence on foreign markets by acquiring the equipment to produce his own embossed papers, full-color ornaments, and printed verses. After operating in several locations, the George C. Whitney Co. moved to 67 Union Place, occupying 75,000 square feet of floor space and employing its 175 full-time workers and 450 part-time, seasonal workers.

Turn-of-the-century Valentines
By the beginning of the 20th century, Whitney valentines were primarily four-colored, fully-printed cards, to which traditional laces and ornaments were only occasionally added. These valentines required less expensive materials. Delicate paper lace, colored wafers, and sentimental mottos began to disappear from commercial valentines.

The End of an Era
By steadily buying out his competitors, George C. Whitney was able to pass on to his son, Warren Whitney, a successful firm with offices in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Although George died in 1915, the company continued to grow and proper for decades. However, in 1942, Warren Whitney liquidated the 77-year-old family business when the paper shortage accompanying World War II made it difficult to secure supplies for non-essential industry.

Especially for Children
After World War I, many valentine makers began to produce greater numbers of children's valentines. Whitney's single-layer valentines-illustrated with standard motifs like round-eyed children, hearts, and flowers-became the norm. Exchanging valentines in school developed into an annual event for children throughout America.

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