The snow on the trees this morning makes the world all lace. No matter how cold, miserable and long winter is, I still love the transient beauty of fresh snow. All the twigs, grasses, dead weeds turn into a fine interplay of white threads of frost.
Once, when I was little, my grandmother gave me a very delicate Valentine she found somewhere in the old house. It was small – maybe a little bigger than a playing card from a standard deck– and totally unlike the funny and mostly bright red Valentines we exchanged in school. It had layers of lace, and a blue background to set off the white. Glued to it were tiny scrap decorations of flowers and people. You have probably seen pictures of this kind of Valentine, but pictures are not very good at reproducing the layers and openings, the contrast of textures, the embossing of the paper flowers. I was enchanted and put it in my doll trunk, where all of my most antique and precious objects were protected.
Gram made us Valentines with oodles of paper lace and a variety of scrap fastened to folded colored paper. When we were older, by her example, Mom and us kids made Valentines every year, cutting and gluing and enjoying a winter afternoon. While I longed for the intricate paper lace of bygone generations, paper doilies could serve the purpose, and Mom added glitter into the mix as a compensation. Aunt Mattie contributed a couple of wallpaper sample books collected from friendly merchants on her route. Valentines were my first collages; it was a wonderful feeling to turn a pile of materials into a special piece.
When my girls were young, I showed them the basics, and we made a great number over the years. By their school years, I had collected a box of flowers, hearts, lace and colored feathers, and I began making them with the kids at school in Cheryl King’s classes. One year the Showalters gave me a sample book of wedding invitations, and that kept us going a long time. Flower catalogues and stickers added to the mass (or mess, according to one’s sensibilities).
New England was the nursery of the fancy Valentine. In the 1840s, Esther Howland, a recent graduate of Mt. Holyoke, saw a European Valentine that inspired her to start a side business to the family’s stationery outlet. She convinced her father to order some of the European paper laces and other materials and then made a few samples, which her brother took on his sales trips. She expected about $200 in orders, but he came back with $5,000 worth. So she set up shop in an unused bedroom and invited her friends to come help assemble the cards, which she designed.
Her business thrived, and she expanded it successfully over the next decades. She delivered baskets of materials to people who worked from home to assemble; eventually she had a factory and a trademark. Her more modest cards, though still very pretty, sold for a nickel; her more intricate and layered creations earned up to $50. A $50 Valentine would still be an extravagance, but that would be over $1,000 in today’s exchange, which is extravagance multiplied! By the time Howland was ready to retire and sold her business, she was a very rich woman.
I don’t know if her Valentines leached into the farms and rural areas of Vermont, but something did. Gram loved making them – though from more homey materials than imported paper lace – and passed that on to the rest of us. I am just waiting for the chance to introduce our fifth generation to the craft! We’ll have so much fun!