According to the History Channel, Valentine's Day is only second to Christmas when it comes to sending friend and family special cards. In fact, by some estimates, Americans send more than one billion (with a "b") Happy Valentines Day cards each year.
I know that as far as my own kids are concerned, Valentines Day greetings were most important during the elementary school years—when no one saw these cards as being romantic cards, just fun to give and receive. What I did not know is that the American tradition of sending valentines originated with a young graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
Back then homemade valentines cards were all rage—because, really, preprinted cards simply didn't exist. And Esther Howland, a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, and a Mount Holyoke alumna—then know as the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary when she graduated in 1847—was inspired to start creating Valentines Day messages of her own after receiving an ornate English valentine sent to her by a family friend. (Europeans had been sending Valentines Day greetings since the 1400s.)
Howland chose the right field to go into, as her father owned the largest book and stationery store in Worcester. He was able to get the paper lace, floral decorations, and other materials sent from England so Howland could take her Valentines Day card ideas, and turn those ideas into a bona fide business making romantic cards and other Valentines Day greetings.
Her idea took off and, legend had it, she had to recruit friends to help her keep up with the demand. Eventually, she created an assembly line business that produced so many valentines that her company, the New England Valentine Company, was grossing $100,000 annually by the time of the Civil War. Howland retired from the Valentine's Day greeting business in 1881. At that time she sold her business to the George C. Whitney Company, which went on to continue making cards for decades. Esther Howland is credited with having established the commercial valentine industry in the United States, according to the History Channel.
Nowadays, Howland's alma mater has an impressive collection of historic and homemade valentines cards. They are part of the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections. The Mount Holyoke valentine collection spans the 1840s to the 1980s, and contains several original valentines made by Howland's New England Valentine Co. in the 1870s, as well as some by George C. Whitney. Here's what the college had to say about its collection:
"These cards display the 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 both Western Europe and the United States."
If you happen to be in Western Massachusetts between February 14 and February 28, you can stop by the Mount Holyoke Williston Library to see the Valentine collection exhibit.
Here are some of my other Valentine's Day stories: