Alumna popularized Valentine’s Day cards.

Detail of Valentine's Day card by Esther Howland

Millions of people will browse the aisles of stationery stores this month in search of the perfect Valentine’s Day card—likely unaware that the signature romantic gesture of Valentine’s Day was popularized and commercialized in Western Massachusetts.

Worcester native Esther Howland, who graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in 1847, was inspired to create elaborate renditions of the greeting card after she received an ornate English valentine sent to her by a family friend. She arranged with her father—who owned the largest book and stationery store in Worcester—to have paper lace, floral decorations, and other materials for the making of cards sent to her from England.

Before long, she was recruiting friends to help her fill the mounting orders and transformed a room in her home into a virtual Valentine factory, employing assembly-line construction of the cards long before Henry Ford adopted the process to mass-produce cars. By the time she sold the business in 1881, it was grossing $100,000 annually.

The Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections has a collection of vintage valentines that includes several created by Howland.

Many of Howland’s design innovations are still used on cards today. These include the lift-up flap with a message beneath it, hand-painted silk and satin centers, and intricate folding.

Although Howland never married, her innovation continues to live as the sine qua non of romantic love more than 150 years later.