Pretty First Valentines

Valentine Created by Esther Howland

Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College

Remember the fun of crafting paper doilies, red construction paper, and crayoned messages into grade-school valentines? You’ve got good company.

Every year on February 14, people everywhere exchange valentine greetings with those they love and cherish. But did you know the American tradition of sending valentines originated with a young graduate of Mount Holyoke College?

The Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections holds an impressive collection of historic valentines—many of which were created by Esther Howland (1828–1904), a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, and a Mount Holyoke alumna credited with having established the commercial valentine industry in the United States. Howland, who graduated from what was then the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847, was inspired by an ornate English valentine sent to her by a family friend to create her own elaborate renditions of the greeting card.

According to the American Antiquarian Society, Howland was fascinated with the idea of making similar valentines. She arranged with her father—who owned the largest book and stationery store in Worcester—to have paper lace, floral decorations, and other materials sent to her from England. When she began taking orders for her creations, she quickly found she needed to recruit friends to help her keep up with the demand. She began to advertise in a Worcester newspaper in early 1850, and she eventually turned the assembly line operation that began in her home into a thriving business grossing $100,000 annually. She retired in 1881 and sold her business to the George C. Whitney Company.

Valentine Collection

An Original Esther Howland Valentine

Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College

Donated by card collector Marjorie Eames in 1993, 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. 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.

Do you remember the most ornate valentine you received? Who was it from? What was it made of? Do you still own it?