Vintage Valentines Exhibited February 11–28

Nineteenth-century Valentines Day cards by Esther Howland

Looking for something more elegant than a standard greeting card for your sweetie this Valentine’s Day? Then stop by the library atrium take your inspiration from a special exhibition beginning February 11 and continuing through the end of the month. The nineteenth-century valentines you’ll see on display declare undying love with intricate elegance.

Archives and Special Collections has an impressive assortment of historic valentines, many of which were created by Esther Howland (1828–1904), a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, and a Mount Holyoke alumna. She is credited with establishing the commercial valentine industry in the United States.

Take a peek at the MHC collection in this 2011 video.

Howland, who graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847, was inspired to create her own elaborate renditions of the greeting card by an ornate English valentine sent to her by a family friend. According to the American Antiquarian Society, she was fascinated with the idea of making similar valentines, and 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.

Before long, she was recruiting friends to help her fill the mounting orders and transformed a room in her home into a valentine factory. In fact, she used the assembly line long before Henry Ford adopted the process to mass-produce cars. Soon, Howland’s valentine operation was a thriving business grossing $100,000 annually.

Although many chroniclers of Howland's popularization of the American valentine dwell on the fact that she never married, she rarely receives credit as a stellar entrepreneur.

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.

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. 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 Europe and the United States.