Esther Howland, daughter of a Worcester, Massachusetts, stationery store owner is credited as one of the first “to harness Cupid for commercial purposes” and “to recognize the money-making potential of mass-produced greetings.” She may have been the earliest entrepreneur to graduate from Mount Holyoke.
Sure, lovers had sent one another Valentine’s Day cards before Howland came along, but she was inspired by an ornate English valentine sent to her by a family friend to create her own elaborate renditions of the greeting card.
Using family connections to gather lace, colored paper, and other valentine decorations, she hand-crafted her own valentine cards. Howland pioneered innovations in card design, including cards that open to reveal their messages and the use of glitter as a decorative element. People loved the greetings, and she soon had a thriving business.
When it became so successful that she couldn’t keep up with the demand, Howland recruited friends to help. She set up an all-female assembly line to manufacture the cards quickly before each year’s holiday.
The New England Valentine Company became a lucrative business that Howland ran until retiring in 1881. Some of her original valentines are on display in the Mount Holyoke College archives. Ironically, the College’s founder, Mary Lyon, banned students from sending what she dubbed "those foolish notes called valentines.”
It’s not known whether Howland ever sent a valentine to a special sweetheart, but the woman who helped so many other couples court never got married herself.