Forgotten Entrepreneur Esther Howland Was “the Mother of the American Valentine”

Released: 4-Feb-2014 1:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: Mount Holyoke College
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Newswise — Valentine’s Day—a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry—wouldn’t be the same without greeting cards. And Americans never sent valentines until Esther Howland (1828–1904) started making them.

Howland established the commercial valentine industry in the United States, yet few of the approximately 150 million Americans who send valentines each February know that she is the reason they do so.

Shortly after graduating from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA) in 1847, Howland was inspired to create her own elaborate renditions of the greeting card by an ornate English valentine sent to her by a family friend. According to the American Antiquarian Society, she was fascinated with the idea of making similar valentines, and she arranged with her father—who owned the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts—to have paper lace, floral decorations, and other materials sent to her from England.

Before long, she was recruiting friends to help her fill the mounting orders and had transformed a room in her home into a valentine factory. In fact, she used the assembly line technique long before Henry Ford adopted the process to mass-produce cars. Soon, Howland’s valentine operation was a thriving business grossing $100,000 annually.

Although many chroniclers of Howland's popularization of the American valentine dwell on the fact that she never married, she rarely receives credit as a successful entrepreneur.

Many of Howland’s design innovations are still used on cards today. These include the lift-up flap with a message beneath it, hand-painted silk and satin centers, and intricate folding.

The Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections has an impressive assortment of historic valentines.Donated by card collector Marjorie Eames in 1993, the Mount Holyoke valentine collection spans the 1840s to the 1980s and contains several original valentines made by Howland's New England Valentine Co.

These cards display stylistic shifts within the valentine industry as it endured paper shortages, postcard crazes, and a growing nostalgia for the Victorian-style cards that characterized the golden age of valentine production in Europe and the United States.

VIDEO: Take a peek at the Mount Holyoke College valentine collection in this 2011 video.

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