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Long before Hallmark, Esther Howland created the modern valentine

This Esther Howland valentine, circa 1875, features a message inside: “You say my heart, my too fond heart, Is cold, my dear, to you; Ah! canst thou such a thought impart To one who loves so true?” (Esther Howland/Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)

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You know what the cynics say: that Valentine’s Day is a holiday invented by greeting card makers and candy companies; that it’s a celebration for romantic comedies and newlyweds only, and so on.

Or maybe, it’s a celebration of one woman’s creative genius.

Esther Howland, the so-called mother of the American valentine, grew up in Worcester, Mass., in the 19th century. She became an informal apprentice in her father’s stationery store, where she combed through mail. When a notecard arrived from England, decorated in Victorian-style lace and ornamentation, it sparked the idea for what became her wildly successful business venture. With innovations in paper design and card messaging, Howland’s valentine sales generated more than $100,000 in yearly revenue, sustaining her business for decades, according to the American Antiquarian Society.

“She’s a businesswoman,” Lauren Hewes, curator of graphic arts at the American Antiquarian Society, said in an interview with WBUR. “I mean, it is lacy, beautiful, feminine material that she’s producing, but she’s producing it successfully and making money.”

The money was literally on the doily covered table. After starting her valentine business in 1849 — and hiring an all-female staff to cut lace, trim hearts and stencil flowers — Howland was soon turning out thousands of valentines to meet demand. She later incorporated her business, sold it for a profit to George C. Whitney and made a name for herself among the few female entrepreneurs at the time.

Today, many of her valentine designs are archived at Mount Holyoke College, her alma mater, or sold to private collectors for hundreds of dollars. Howland even wrote a guide to sentimental love language, which we continue to see replicated in Hallmark cards today.

But Howland herself was immune to such sentiment — she never married.


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