Pope Gelasius I declared February 14 as St. Valentine's Day in the year 496. In Europe, it was celebrated as a day for romance starting in the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer was perhaps the first to write of its amorous associations, in his 1375 poem Parliament of Foules: "For this was on Seynt Valentyne's day/Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make." And Americans likely exchanged handcrafted Valentines starting in the 1700s.
But it was in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1849 -- 173 years ago this month -- that 20-year-old Esther Howland introduced the first high-quality, mass-produced Valentine's Day cards. Her innovation turned into a big business, leading to an all-female assembly line in a third-floor room of her family home and eventually earning her as much as $100,000 annually from sales. (That's more than $3 million today.)
Howland, who could trace her roots to the Mayflower, would go on to be known as both "the mother of the American Valentine" and "New England's first career woman." Mount Holyoke College, the women's college (then a seminary) from which she graduated in 1847, credits her as likely its first entrepreneur alumna. Perhaps due to a single-minded focus on work, and ironically given the nature of that work, she never married -- and there is no historical evidence of a romantic interest.
European-made Valentine's cards were available in the United States in the 1840s, but they were elaborate and expensive and available to very few. Mass-produced American cards, on the other hand, were poorly made and unpopular.
In the year she would graduate from Mount Holyoke, Howland received a beautiful European Valentine, and she had an idea. Her father, S.A. Howland, was a successful and prosperous stationer and bookseller in Worcester, and she persuaded him to order fancy papers, laces and ornamental flowers, and she began to create designs. When her brother went on a sales trip for the family business, Howland convinced him to take along samples. She hoped he'd find card orders worth $200; instead, he returned to Worcester with $5,000 worth of orders.
By 1850, Howland had created more designs, including more expensive ones. A basic card cost 5 cents; a version with silk or satin could go for as much as $1. She ran her first newspaper advertisements in the Worcester Daily Spy. Her orders doubled, and the business kept growing. Eventually, she created birthday cards and Christmas cards. She had agents selling cards for her across the country. Each genuine Howland card was stamped with a red letter "H."
Howland incorporated the business as the New England Valentine Company, and in 1879 she moved operations from her home to a factory downtown. In 1881, she sold the business to a rival -- George C. Whitney, also of Worcester -- in order to care for her ailing father. Howland died in 1904. The Whitney Company, then the world's largest Valentine's cardmaker, shuttered in 1942, the victim of wartime paper shortages.
But Howland's innovations live on, even if her business does not. According to Hallmark -- which first sold Valentine's Day cards in 1913 and started manufacturing them in 1916 -- about 145 million Valentine's Day cards are now sent each year, not including the packaged kids' cards exchanged in elementary schools.
Few of them are as pretty as Howland's originals.
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