Valentines, here and abroad

Kat Dockery makes these beautiful Valentines, available at Rainy Day. — courtesy Kat Dockery

Jib Ellis writes from the wilds of Vineyard Haven, where he thinks, often, about how the Island is, was and could be. Every so often Jib will digress on something on-Island that reminds him of the outside world. Or, in this case, vice versa.

The first established American Valentines officially came from Worcester in 1849 but at least one was sent on the Vineyard in that very same year.

Miss Caroline Osborn of Edgartown received a custom fashioned and  admirably over-written card in 1849 and another Yankee lass, one Esther Howland  of Worcester, began to make the first American cards on a manufactured scale.

The Valentine history actually dates back to ancient Rome. There was a Saint Valentine of that city and his day is both a religious feast day in many cultures and a massive industry here.

Celebrations of romantic love burgeoned in Chaucerian days and 18th Century England saw the first sending of ornate, cupid and heart embossed cards and assorted sweets for the … you know … but over here there were only glorified — if not grandly decorated — notes.

In 1849, one of those English cards found its way to Miss Esther Howland. She was familiar with the basic holiday theme. During her time at Mt. Holyoke Women’s Seminary, class of `47, the lasses informally exchanged little poems and light gifts, but no cards.

However, upon her graduation, the 19-year-old damsel received a lovely if not formal Valentine from a gentleman in England. That complimented and pleased her so that it even lent a moment of entrepreneurial inspiration.

Given that her father had a rather expansive paper, book and stationer’s store in Worcester she quite simply ordered frills, lace and flowers to adorn lavish European paper. She introduced affordable yet still elaborate cards for the American market. And the rest, as they say, is commerce.

Dubbed “The Mother of the American Valentine,” her business crept up into six-figures before she sold it to one George Whitney in 1881. She died at 78, unmarried and still in Worcester.

The George C. Whitney company, which began mass-produced mush, rose to become one of the largest valentine publishers in the U.S.

Mr. Whitney’s real competition began in with the rise of Hallmark Cards. In 1915 Joyce Clyde Hall and his brother Rollie had their Kansas City, Missouri picture post card business leveled by fire.

In the process of rebuilding their effort one of them saw an increasing desire for privacy in correspondence which led them to creating cards in mailing envelopes. They introduced their first Valentine cards in 1913 with a line of them by 1916.

In a pinch, one employer snatched the lining from a lavish French envelope to wrap a gift and wrapping paper was born. But the Hall family wasn’t nearly done. They were not the “Hallmark” of holiday tradition until the wonderful copy line of 1944. That was the year of their slogan: “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best,” and the general consumer consensus had to go with that thinking.

Hallmark is a now $4 billion business with nearly 40,000 of their own stores in 100 countries around the world, yet remains family owned.

A local  friend snapped up a writing job many years ago, even though it was writing card copy for Hallmark in Kansas City. When he left after a year, he cited the displeasure with it not being his sort of writing.

Upon returning to Massachusetts, he recalled: “Guys out there had tattoos with things like, `Born to raise corn.’”

Kat Dockery of Edgartown, the creator of the cards illustrating this story,  started making cards about four years ago to help her daughter’s class raise money for a class trip. When the teachers began to buy up her inventory, she started making them regularly. Her Valentine’s Day cards are currently for sale at Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven.