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This Valentine’s Day, Will You Be Mine?

Collection Spotlight


Esther Howland

This was a popular and serious subject in Victorian times. In a time of highly regulated courtship, sending a valentine allowed a sharing of feelings that could not be expressed in person. Even—gasp—women(!) were allowed to send valentines.

The Art Institute’s Department of Prints and Drawings has a collection of over 2,000 valentines from the Victorian period, including fanciful creations of paper lace, fabric scraps, and artificial flowers; inexpensive printed cards with comic subjects; and even three-dimensional collages. In fact, we have one unusual example that features a real, preserved hummingbird (romantic, or just plain creepy?).

Our valentine expert, Debra Mancoff, told me that the best-known valentine maker was an American woman, Esther Howland, who opened her own firm in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1849, and hired only women. She was most famous for her extremely popular “May Basket” valentines, of which we own two. They were made of sheets of paper lace, with a large, paper-cut basket in the middle that contained huge, crowded collages of flowers made from paper and fabric. In the 1850s, a besotted young fellow wanted to impress his fiancée, and ordered a very impressive May Basket valentine from Esther for a whopping $10, which translates to approximately $300 today. He most certainly knocked the socks off his gal, but her parents, sadly, were less than impressed: they immediately broke off the engagement because they were appalled by how badly he handled his money.

—Sarah Guernsey



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