The American tradition of sending valentines originated with a young paper-obsessed and romance-loving woman from New England, suggests a new museum exhibit.

It was Esther Howland‘s vision and small business drive that heightened the prominence of Valentine’s Day in the States and began the tradition of sharing beautiful cards to help mark the occasion.

Howland (1828-1904), a native of Worcester, Mass., graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847 and wondered what she’d do in life.

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Her inspiration came from an ornate English valentine sent to her by a family friend. She loved the look of it, along with its sentiment.

Howland’s father owned the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, so she arranged with him to have valentine-making materials sent from England. The card giving tradition already had been established in England, along with other places in Europe — especially Germany. The materials she ordered included paper lace, floral decorations, colorful paper and more.

Howland hand-crafted the first valentines and began to take orders for them.

According to the American Antiquarian Society, she then began to recruit friends to help her keep up with the demand. She started to advertise in a Worcester newspaper in early 1850 for help. This effort led to an assembly line operation, turning her home-based operation into a thriving business that grossed $100,000 annually.

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She retired in 1881 and sold her business to the George C. Whitney Company. That company later installed machinery to make lace and emboss paper, eliminating the expensive need to order supplies from abroad. The company’s early valentines resembled the first hand-crafted ones produced by Howland.

You can see some early cards at this page.

The exhibit at Mount Holyoke College spans the 1840s to the 1980s and contains several original valentines made by Howland’s New England Valentine Company in the 1870s, as well as some by George C. Whitney. 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.

Image: An early valentine created by Esther Howland; Credit: Mount Holyoke College