Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentines in the U.S.--It All Started Here!

Time to re-post my annual Valentine's Day essay. I see that in today's New York Times there is a long article about Valentines, including two photographs of Esther Howland valentines--but no mention that she was living, and began making, Valentines in Worcester, MA!

 (I recently bought these English and German-made valentines at an auction--sadly, they are not from Howland or Taft.)

Worcester, MA, the once-bustling industrial metropolis 45 minutes west of Boston where I live, is enormously proud of its rather peculiar list of “famous firsts”, including barbed wire, shredded wheat, the monkey wrench, the birth control pill, the first perfect game in major league baseball, the first liquid-fueled rocket and the ubiquitous yellow Smiley Face icon (starring in a soon-to-be-published tell-all book “The Saga of Smiley”, printed by the Worcester Historical Museum and written by me.)

And every year about this time, you hear about how Worcester produced the first commercial valentines in this country thanks to a foresighted young woman named Esther Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine.”

Esther Howland (1828-1904) attended Mount Holyoke at the same time as Emily Dickinson. She was the daughter of a successful Worcester stationer and, in 1847, she received a frilly English valentine that inspired her to ask her father to order materials from England so that she could assemble her own.  She then convinced her brother, a salesman for the company, to show a few of her valentines on his sales rounds.

The initial demand was overwhelming and Esther gathered some of her friends to help her assemble the valentines, seating them around a long table on the third floor of her home.  The company was eventually earning $100,000—a phenomenal success.

Esther is considered significant because, according to historians, she was among the first commercially successful women overseeing a female-run business, and she basically created the assembly-line system, paying the local women “liberally”.

She introduced layers of lace, three-dimensional accordion effects, and insisted that the verses be hidden inside--something you had to hunt for. She had her staff mark the back of each valentine with a red “H”.

In the Victorian era, Valentines were wildly popular, and the elaborate cards were scrutinized for clues—even the position of the stamp on the envelope meant something. Often the valentine was intended as a marriage proposal.

On Feb. 14, 1849, Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousin, “The last week has been a merry one in Amherst, & notes have flown around like snowflakes.  Ancient gentlemen & spinsters, forgetting time & multitude of years, have doffed their wrinkles – in exchange for smiles…”

In 1879—after 30 years in business—Esther Howland merged with Edward Taft, the son of Jotham Taft, a North Grafton valentine maker.  Together they formed the New England Valentine Co. (and their cards were marked “N.E.V.Co.”)

This is where Esther Howland’s title of “Mother of the Valentine” begins to get a little shaky.

It seems, upon much study, that Edward Taft’s father, Jotham Taft of North Grafton, a small village near Worcester, started the commercial valentine business in the U.S. even before Miss Howland did,  but he didn’t like to talk about it, because the Taft family were strict Quakers and Jotham Taft’s mother sternly disapproved of such frivolity as Valentines. (Full disclosure—I live in North Grafton, about a stone’s throw from where Taft worked.)

In 1836, Jotham Taft married Sarah E. Coe of Rhode Island and two years later, they welcomed twin sons.  But in 1840, one of the twins died suddenly, leaving Mrs. Taft prostrate with grief.  Jotham decided to take his wife and surviving son to Europe with him on a buying trip for the stationer who employed him, and while in Germany, he bought many valentines supplies—laces, lithographs, birds and cupids.

When he returned, Taft began making valentines with his wife’s help, and in 1844—3 years before Esther Howland graduated from college—he opened a valentine “factory” in North Grafton (then called New England Village.)  But because of his mother’s disapproval, Taft never put his own name on the valentines—only “Wood” (his middle name) or “N.E.V.” for “New England Village”.  Some believed that Taft trained Elizabeth Howland as one of his workers before she opened her own factory

Taft and Howland merged into the New England Valentine Co. in 1879, and a year later Esther’s father became ill and she left her business to care for him.  After he died, she moved in with one of her brothers and she passed away in 1904.

Unfortunately, despite all the couples who presumably found their true love thanks to Esther’s creations, the “Mother of the Valentine” never married.

In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the combined business of Taft and Howland and it became The Whitney Co,  which dominated valentine production for many years.  Instead of cards laboriously made by hand, Whitney turned to machine- printed valentines and eventually added postcards in the 1890’s.  The Whitney designs, featuring children who resembled the “Campbell Soup “ kids, were wildly popular, although more often exchanged by children than adult lovers, and in 1942 the Whitney factory closed, as a result of wartime paper shortages.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Royal Brides Part II—Diana’s Tiara and Victoria’s Secret


         Last week I posted about Queen Victoria’s revolutionary wedding dress, which broke with tradition in 1840 by being white and featuring, not a diamond crown, but simply a wreath of orange blossoms in her hair. I also included two photos and comments about the crowns worn by modern royal brides Princess Diana and Kate Middleton.  I posted a photo of Diana and wrote:  Princes Diana, at her wedding on July 29, 1981, wore a much more visible and dramatic crown—the Lover’s Knot tiara, which was made in 1914 using diamonds and pearls from the royal family’s collection.”

            Turns out I was wrong.  As my sharp-eyed daughter Eleni pointed out, that was not a photo of Diana in the Lovers Knot tiara at her wedding, although it did become her favorite crown and the Queen did loan it to her for the wedding.  But at the last minute Diana decided to get married in the Spencer Family crown, shown here.

         According to People Magazine, “Like all good royal pieces, the Spencer Tiara is actually made up of other pieces of jewelry... The current version – which is constructed with diamonds shaped into tulips and stars surrounded by attractive scrolls – was probably finalized sometime in the ’30s. It has become a popular wedding tiara for the Spencer family: Diana’s sisters – Lady Sarah and Jane, Baroness Fellowes – both wore the sparkler for their wedding days and Victoria Lockwood, who was the first wife of Diana’s brother Charles, the current Earl of Spencer, wore it when she married into the famed aristocratic family in 1989 (when little Prince Harry served as a pageboy). However, Diana’s mother, Frances, did not wear the tiara when she married into the Spencer family in 1954.”

        Back to Victoria and her famous wedding dress, which featured a flounce of Honiton lace.  As a mark of support for the Honiton industry, Victoria insisted her daughters also order Honiton lace for their wedding dresses. She also wore her wedding lace sewed on to the dresses she wore to the christenings of her nine children and to the weddings of two of her children, her eldest daughter, Victoria, in 1858, and her youngest son, Leopold in 1882.

         Victoria’s youngest and favorite daughter, Princess Beatrice, was the only bride allowed to wear Victoria’s own veil of Honiton lace, because her mother knew how much she loved it.  Beatrice wore it as part of her wedding gown when she married Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885. Her veil was crowned with a circlet of diamond stars, a marriage gift from her mother.  Here is Beatrice at her wedding.

         (I found out, while researching this post, that Beatrice was originally expected to marry Napoleon Eugene, the French Prince Imperial, whose murder during the Anglo-Zulu war in June of 1879 I have already written about in an earlier post called “The Prince Imperial—Murdered by Zulus”

         The telegram announcing the Prince Imperial’s death left Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice in tears.  According to Victoria's journal, "Dear Beatrice, crying very much as I did too, gave me the telegram ... It was dawning and little sleep did I get ... Beatrice is so distressed; everyone quite stunned."

         Later, when Beatrice fell in love with Prince Henry of Battenberg, she told her mother she had decided to marry him and the Queen stopped speaking to her for seven months, communicating only by written notes.  Victoria had always said that her youngest and favorite daughter should never marry, but stay by the Queen’s side as her companion.   Eventually Victoria was cajoled into accepting the engagement and consented to the marriage on the condition that Henry give up his German commitments and live permanently with Beatrice and the Queen.

 Twelve years earlier was the marriage of Victoria’s son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in Saint George’s Chapel of Windsor Castle in March of 1863.  This wedding produced a deluge of photographs of the future King and Queen.  Because the court was still in mourning for Prince Albert, ladies attending the wedding were restricted to wearing gray, lilac or mauve. The notoriously libertine eldest son of Victoria did not do a very good job of hiding his affairs—more than 50 by some estimates—which occurred both before and after the wedding.   In fact Victoria blamed Edward’s loose ways for the death of her adored husband.

 In September 1861, Edward was sent to Germany, supposedly to watch military maneuvers but actually in order to introduce him to Princess Alexandra of Denmark.   Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had already decided that they should marry. They met on 24 September thanks to his elder sister, Victoria, who had married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858.   Edward and Alexandra were friendly from the start; and marriage plans got underway.

From this time, Edward started earning his reputation as a playboy. He attended maneuvers in Ireland, and spent three nights with an actress Nellie Clifden, who hid with him in the camp.  Prince Albert, though ill, heard about his son’s adventure and went to visit Edward at Cambridge, to read him the riot act.  Just two weeks after the visit, Albert died, in December 1861.  Queen Victoria was inconsolable.  She wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life and she blamed Edward for his father's death.  She considered her son frivolous, indiscreet and irresponsible and wrote to her eldest daughter, "I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder."   

 (Edward’s many mistresses included actress Lillie Langtry; Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome, who became Lady Randolph Churchill; actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Alice Keppel, who was the great grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles—formerly mistress of Prince Charles and now his wife.)

Finally, here is Victoria’s secret, which I discovered while researching this post.  Today we like to think of Queen Victoria as being extremely prudish, but in fact, her marriage to Prince Albert was very passionate, and in 1843, she commissioned her favorite artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, to painting an intimate portrait of herself, “for Albert’s eyes only”.  The resulting painting, which Victoria wrote was “My darling Albert’s favourite picture” was kept in Albert’s private writing room, where only he could enjoy it.  After the death of the Queen, Buckingham Palace kept Victoria’s “secret picture” a secret, revealing it to the public for the first time in 1977.  

You may wonder why this painting was considered so intimate and erotic that no one was allowed to see it.  This is one more example of my oft-repeated statement that what we in the 21st century see when we look at an antique photograph or painting is far different from what contemporaries of the image saw.

The erotic element in Victoria’s secret painting is the hair (as well as the expanse of royal bosom shown.)  In Victorian days, a girl became a woman at 18 and began to wear her hair up, piled on top of her head, often in braids as Victoria did.  No one but her husband would be allowed to see her with her hair down and disheveled, draped over her shoulders. 

A woman’s long hair was one of the most erotic parts of her body in those days; witness the advertisements for hair products showing naked women with their floor-length hair protecting their modesty å la Lady Godiva. ( If you want to know more about  the history of “Older Women and Long Hair in the Olden Days”, check out my December 2010 blog post on the subject:  .  

By the way, the heart shaped pendant on a gold chain held a lock of Albert’s hair which Victoria wore “night and day” before their wedding. (Many times I’ve acquired a daguerreotype from the 1840’s and removed the image from the case or pendant ,to find a lock of the sitter’s hair inside.)


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Thoughts on Turning 70--Seven Years Later

(The photo shows my mother and myself in 1943)

The wonderful thing about having a bad memory--as I do--is that I had completely forgotten that I wrote and posted this  seven years ago, on the eve of turning 70.  Now I'm about to turn 77 and I re-read this with wonder as I realized that all my hopes for my crone-hood-- especially becoming a grandmother--have come true!  What a great birthday present!

When you turn 70, (as I do on Friday, Feb. 4) you can’t consider yourself middle-aged any more.  Let’s face it, you’re wicked old.

In 1985 my mother died at 74 of cardiomyopathy and my father died at 80 not long after, but he spent his last years lost in dementia, which may or may not have been connected to his Parkinson’s disease. I think we all keep our parents’ ages at death in the back of our minds like a bad omen.  A male friend of mine was convinced that he’d die of heart disease at 62, like his father, and didn’t relax about this until he passed that milestone year.

I used to think the best time of life was when your children are young and all sorts of accomplishments are still possible in your future.  But now I think that, for women, crone-hood – life after sixty—is the best time of one’s life.

If that is, you are lucky enough to have good health.  Two years ago I was collecting classmates’ bios for the book distributed at our 50th high school reunion in Edina, Minnesota. I realized how many classmates had died (39 out of 331) and that many were struggling with serious illness.  Also a number of my friends have had their mobility compromised by hip or knee problems and other ailments.

I’ve been very lucky this far, which is something that I think about every day.

When I sit down in the morning with coffee and the newspapers, I’m profoundly glad that I don’t have to show up an office at 8 a.m. with five newspapers in my hand, then read them and mimeograph a news summary for my company’s management before ten a.m.  That was my first job in Manhattan, working for Lever Brothers.  Now all executives get their daily business news instantaneously on their I-phones or Blackberries or laptops.

I admit, I’ve become addicted to the computer, which I think is the most important innovation in my lifetime.

When my mother died in 1985, she had never touched a computer (although my father actually sold huge, hulking Univac computers to companies before he retired.) When she was pregnant with me—in 1940-41-- my mother spent the time compiling a book-sized family history of our ancestors, typing it up laboriously with lots of carbon copies, and distributing it to her eight siblings and eventually to her children.  Think how much easier that job would be today!

Another computer phenomenon is the social networks, especially Facebook, which many people consider invasive and dangerous.  But it has created a worldwide community which can share news and ideas and opinion instantly.

Consider this—on the first day of February, two young women who are among my “Facebook friends” each gave birth to a daughter—one in Omaha and one in Connecticut-- and they both announced it to the world on Facebook before they were wheeled out of the delivery room.  One even posted an album of photos of the baby, before and after the umbilical cord was cut.

Also, I’ve heard from friends with relatives who are soldiers in, say, Afghanistan, that an expectant dad in the military can watch his wife’s entire labor and delivery live on the computer (I guess through Skype.) This is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing. Of course if the dad didn’t have to go to war, that would be an even better thing.

Sometimes I imagine explaining things like this to my mother, who would have loved the internet.

The goal that motivates me to exercise on the stationary bike most days and go to Pilates lessons is the hope that I’ll stay alive and mobile long enough to be a grandmother. My friends become inarticulate when trying to explain how grandchildren can transform your life.

It seems to me that when women turn fifty, they’re likely to give their husbands a big cast-of-thousands celebration and ignore their own birthday, but when they turn 60, many of my friends celebrated themselves with the party or trip they’d always wanted.

And when women enter crone-hood, they often channel the creative energy they used to spend on home, children and jobs into some long-hidden passion-- designing jewelry, writing a book, gardening, volunteering their talents to a philanthropy. They allow themselves to do what they always wanted, but never had time for. A friend of mine, a couple of years older than I am, went from wife, mother and chef to law student, then lawyer, then judge, then a state chief justice. A run-in with cancer slowed her down and she retired.  Now she’s enrolled at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary School so that, aged 70-plus, she can fulfill her childhood dream and become a veterinarian. (And she relaxes with horseback riding and tap dancing!)

I, too, went the “discover-your-passion-at-60” route and turned away from journalism (although I still do it) to re-discovering art, which was my major in college until I realized I could never earn a living at it.  So I started taking lessons at the Worcester Art Museum, exhibited in some local shows and sold some paintings.

As long I can get around and handle my own luggage, I intend to travel to places I’ve never been and take lots of photographs (mostly of people) and then turn the photos into paintings.  Last month I wrote about a night spent watching sea turtles hatching on a beach in Nicaragua and heading into the sea.  I called it a “bucket list” experience.

Next week I’m off on another one.  My husband is giving me the birthday gift of a
culinary tour in Mexico with chef Susana Trilling, traveling around the state of Michoacan to witness the migration of the Monarch butterflies.   Susana has a cooking school in Oaxaca (called Seasons of My Heart) and I’ve been on unforgettable tours with her, far, far off the beaten path to many parts of the country, but this is Susana’s first Butterfly tour and I know it’s going to be amazing

There are a lot more trips on my bucket list and I don’t know how much time I’ve got left to make them, but, free of the drama, responsibility, worry and insecurity of youth, I’m entering my seventh decade with anticipation (and hope) that this will be the best one yet.