Do you remember who your first Valentine’s Day crush was?
Mine was in fifth grade, her name was Madeline, and when I tell you she was the most beautiful girl in my entire class, I am not making it up.
Let me just tell you why she was the most beautiful girl that graced the halls of my Catholic middle school.
On top of her superior intellect and natural beauty, Madeline had this voice that would pierce the rafters of our school chapel, letting out an angelic sound that would make God himself shed the occasional tear. I remember hearing it for the first time when she volunteered to sing in church and even the teachers looked at one another in awe like Beyonce was inside the body of this 10-year-old girl.
Nonetheless, I remember Valentine’s Day that year so vividly…
I waited after class by her locker to give her the card and heart-shaped box of Russel Stovers Chocolates that I made my mom lug me to the Hallmark store to get. Upon her arrival, my perfectly recited script escaped me and all I could do was hand over the valentine with my shaking hands.
She smiled, gave me a hug, and continued on with the classroom celebration that was turning into candy-filled craziness.
Though we didn’t fall in love at that moment, and I’m pretty sure she married a high-school classmate of mine, I will never forget the feeling of giving that card to her. Even though I was just a kid who had been shot with Cupid’s arrow a few days earlier, there was something about sharing that Valentine that felt incredibly special.
Which got me thinking...
Where did the whole “sharing Valentine's Day cards” idea even come from? As far as I know, Cupid was just a fat baby angel who wanted his own holiday so the people gave it to him.
Per usual, there were questions to be answered about the history of Valentine’s Day cards and why they are so deeply tied to this celebration.
And just like most research, I stumbled into a pretty unique story that you probably never hear before…
Meet Esther Howland—The Mother of Valentines.
Daughter to Southworth Allen Howland—a prominent book and stationery factory owner—Esther was 19 fresh out of college, and eager to find a way to make money in 1847. After receiving a Valentine’s Day card from a business associate of her father’s, she was struck by the ornate design and appearance.
Bear in mind, Valentine’s Day had not been popularized in the United States at this point. Most elaborate Valentine’s Day cards and candy could only be afforded by the wealthy, including the originators of the holiday, the British.
She had never seen anything like it before. The paper materials themselves were of top quality compared to the sheets she scribbled on in her academics. With some parental permission from her pops, Esther ordered supplies from Europe and New York City hoping to outdo the competition she had found in prior Victorian-era Valentine’s Day Cards.
A growing love affair for paper…
With premium supplies in hand, Esther crafted 12 different Valentine’s Day card samples that her brother could show in his sales pitches as he traveled across the country. The hope was that when he returned from his trip, she’d be lucky to get $200.00 worth of orders.
To her complete and utter dismay, he returned with $2,000.00 worth of orders.
Remember, we’re talking about the year 1849—that’s about $71,000 in 2022.
This massive order called for backup, so Esther took to her college friends and family guest bedroom to create a makeshift mini factory where they could produce cards at a faster rate, while still maintaining impeccable quality.
Building a Valentine’s Card empire can happen overnight…
Esther found herself so busy that she had to hire extra women in Worcester, MA just to work on cards in their own homes. She sent them kits that included everything they needed to whip up dozens of letters for lovers and picked them up at the end of each week.
I like to think she might have even been the first person to let employees do remote work way before a global pandemic.
Every day, her team would pull together a collection of cards and share them with Esther for review. From there, she would meticulously inspect each and every one ensuring it was in pristine condition for its intended lover. From there, she scripted paper sheets that mimicked the Victorian practice of writing poems in cards.
These messages were eventually crafted into a book that she called her “love mottos”–a collection of 131 different verses that could be pasted inside each card. This is where the saying “Be My Valentine” became popularized.
Word of Esther’s card-creating empire quickly spread across the United States, so much so that within a year of starting the business, she was featured in the Worcester Spy, leading to a serious influx in business.
Seemingly overnight, she went from a guest bedroom to a full-fledged factory, importing goods from all across Europe and assembling some of the most intricate and beautiful Valentine’s Day cards in the world. She began exploring new techniques in layering, embossing, and ornamenting, giving cards a variety of different materials and textures that Americans had never seen before.
Remember the cards that had multiple layers giving it a 3 dimensional accordion effect? They looked something like this…
Well, you can give credit to our girl Esther for coming up with the idea.
By the time the 1860s rolled around, Esther was running a wildly successful card empire that she rightfully named The New England Valentine Company—and it was churning out over $100,000 in revenue annually. Eventually, she decided to merge her businesses with fellow competitor Edward Taft in 1879 and retired from the Valentine’s Day card hustle in the late 1880s.
Show some love for Esther Howland this Valentine’s Day…
While all of this feels like quite a long time ago, it laid the foundation for what would quickly become a classic American tradition that we all know and love–and we have Esther to thank for that.
Just take a look around the store next time you are wandering the aisles looking for a few cards or some candy. You’ll definitely notice Esther’s touch emulating from every piece of paper on the shelf.
Without her, who knows? I may have never gone up to Madeline that fateful Valentine’s Day and given her that card so thank you, Esther.
Thank you and Happy Valentine’s Day!