Valentine’s Day: The woman who created a US industry

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How many valentines did you receive this year? How many did you send?

Some 190 million valentines are sent each year, according to the US Greeting Card Association. And, If you count the cards made by US schoolchildren in every class, the count goes up to 1 billion. Back in 2010, some 15 million e-valentines were sent!

A valentine by Esther, “Affection,” c.1870s

The American tradition of sending valentines was the idea of Esther Howland (1828-1904), a young graduate of Mount Holyoke College (Massachusetts). The school’s original name was the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, and Esther graduated in 1847.

Mount Holyoke’s archives and special collections has an impressive collection of historic valentines, many created by Esther.

Another of Esther Howland’s cards

She is credited with having established the commercial valentine industry in the US, inspired by an ornate English valentine – sent by a family friend – to create her elaborate versions of the greeting card.

According to the American Antiquarian Society, she was fascinated with the idea of making similar cards. Her father, who owned the largest book and stationery store in the city of Worcester, arranged to have paper lace, floral decorations and other materials sent to her from England. It really was a family business. It seems a brother had excellent penmanship and she convinced him to write the inscriptions. Another brother was a salesman for the company. She began taking orders and quickly recruited friends to help keep up with the demand.

Despite the high price tag for those days — $5 to $10 each, and with some extremely fanciful cards at $30, that were decorated with ribbons, expensive details and luxury fabrics, the business boomed. In 1850, she began to advertise in a local newspaper and turned her all female home-based assembly line operation into a business making more than $100,000 annually. In 1881, she retired and sold the business to the George C. Whitney Company. Interestingly, the woman who created the US Valentine card business never married.

The collection was donated to the college by Marjorie Eames in 1993, and covers the 1840s-1980s, with several original cards from the 1870s made by Howland’s company, the New England Valentine Co.

The cards show how styles changed over the years as the industry suffered paper shortages, postcard popularity, and nostalgia for Victorian-style cards marked the golden age of valentines in Western Europe and the US.

What are the favorite valentines you’ve received? Who were they from? Do you have any old valentines received by your parents or grandparents?

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