By Chad Sirois, Communications Manager
“Industry, punctuality and Christianity” was the motto of the man who would make Worcester the heart of the American valentine-making industry. While many would credit this to Esther Howland, the mother of the American valentine, it was actually the work and perseverance of George C. Whitney that would bring about Worcester’s prominence.
Born in 1842, George Clarkson Whitney was the youngest of the three Whitney boys, his older brothers being Edward Whitney (1834-1897) and Sumner Allen Whitney (1824-1861). His parents died while he was still a boy and it is most likely that Sumner, already 20 when Whitney was born, stood in as guardian. Living in Worcester as a young boy, he attended Worcester Academy. At the age of 19, he enlisted in the Union Army as a private in the 51st Regiment. He served as clerk in the Provost Marshall’s Office under Major Harkness at Beaufort, North Carolina.
Upon returning from the war, Whitney entered into business with his brother Sumner, who owned a wholesale stationary store. Sumner and his wife were also hand-crafting valentines as a sideline. The trauma of the Civil War had led to a surge in sentimentality, and valentines provided the perfect medium to express ones feelings. The industry surged. After Sumner’s death, George renamed the business The Whitney Valentine Company and he began to quickly buy up his competitors in the region.
Before 1888, Whitney had bought out at least 10 competitors, most importantly Esther Howland and Jotham Taft’s New England Valentine Company. He purchased the New York firms of Berlin and Jones, the city’s largest manufacturer of valentines, and A.J. Fisher Company. A.J. Fisher dealt in a comic, or vinegar, valentines. Whitney did not believe in “using love’s gifts as a medium for ridicule,” and did not use many of Fisher’s plates for his own company’s printing.
Whitney also added other holiday cards to his business, such as Christmas, Halloween, New Year’s and Easter. He began printing calendars, books, and booklets. In 1898, the company moved to larger quarters on Union Street. The business was incorporated as the George C. Whitney Company. Even with a destructive fire in 1910, by 1915 Worcester Magazine assessed that “ninety per cent of the valentines that are exchanged on St. Valentine’s Day come from Worcester.” In April of 1915, George C. Whitney died. He was eulogized not just for his commercial endeavors, but for his philanthropic work with the Y.M.C.A., the Baptist Foreign Missionary Society, and other religious charitable organizations.
The company continued to thrive, run by Whitney’s son Warren and later his grandson George. Even with it’s success the business couldn’t withstand the paper shortage of WWII. With the company unable to re-purpose their machinery for the war effort, the largest Valentine manufacturer in America closed its doors. The Telegram & Gazette mused in retrospect:
Today in 1942, [March 1] a tear drop touched all valentines. The George C. Whitney Co., 67 Union Street, the largest and oldest manufacturer of valentines in the world, announced it would voluntarily liquidate its business.
Worcester Historical Museum has many George C. Whitney valentines and other greeting cards with in its collection. You can learn more with a visit to the museum or by making an appointment with our research librarian, or downloading a presentation on the history of valentines in Worcester. You can also send a historic e-card.
Enter the 42nd Annual “Be Our Valentine” Contest
Create an original valentine in 2020 and be part of Worcester’s valentine-making tradition
Open to students in grades 3, 4, 5 and 6 or the equivalent who (a) attend Worcester schools, (b) are the children of members of Worcester Historical Museum, or (c) are holders of an active Worcester Public Library card.
Bring one entry per child to Worcester Historical Museum, 30 Elm Street, by 4 p.m. by Friday, January 31, 2020.
See the 2019 winners!
For nearly 100 years, Worcester was the center of the commercial valentine industry in the United States. In 1847, according to local folklore, Worcester resident Esther Howland received an English valentine, which inspired her to design her own. She sold her cards through her father’s stationery store. Business flourished, and Esther recruited friends to assemble cards in a third-floor room at the family residence, 16 Summer Street. While it is generally agreed that Esther Howland was the first to make valentines in Worcester, Jotham Taft of nearby Grafton was also making valentines. He and his wife built a successful valentine industry from their home in the early 1840s. Jotham’s son Edward formed a partnership with Esther Howland in 1879, called the New England Valentine Company.
In 1863, George C. Whitney joined his brother Edward in the family stationery store begun by their late brother Sumner, at 218 Main Street. The brothers worked together as the Whitney Valentine Company until 1869, when Edward withdrew from the partnership. In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the New England Valentine Company and incorporated it into his operation. He also bought Jotham Taft’s business. The Whitney business proved to be highly successful. After George died in 1915, his son Warren took over management. The George C. Whitney Company continued to prosper until 1942, when the wartime paper shortage caused the liquidation of the largest greeting card company in the world.