Long before Valentine’s Day could ever be called a “Hallmark holiday,” the romance card industry had its roots in Worcester, Massachusetts thanks to one woman.
Esther Howland is considered the pioneer of the American Valentine’s Day card industry. In the 1800s, she fashioned fancy paper and lace valentines by hand, sparking a business that would boom in the central Massachusetts city.
“The lore is that she was a Mount Holyoke graduate when she received an [English] valentine,” said Bill Wallace, a historian and executive director at the Worcester Historical Museum. “Her father is a stationer so here’s something she can do — she likes the design and concept, and her father has access to the materials.”
Howland started assembling valentines around the late 1840s (she graduated in 1848) and initially sold her cards at her father’s stationary store. Her designs were so popular that her business blossomed, experts believe, to gross more than $100,000 a year.
Howland created her ornate valentines through an assembly line system in which one worker would lay down a background, the next would add the lace, another adding a decal, someone else adding a poem or verse on top, and so on.
This meant no two ever really looked alike. Her valentines were cherished, experts say, for their uniqueness and her innovative designs.
But eventually, there was competition. A man named Jotham Taft had started assembling Valentines in Grafton, Mass. and Howland ended up partnering with his son, Edward, in 1879 to create the New England Valentine Company.
In 1863, George and Edward Whitney began making valentines at their family stationery store, forming the Whitney Valentine Company. With these businesses, Worcester was home to a huge volume of valentine production. Whitney eventually bought out the New England Valentine Company as well as other competitors.
Original Howland and Whitney cards can be seen at the Worcester Historical Museum. Wallace said that around this time every year, people flock there to celebrate this tradition.
The museum hosts workshops so people of all ages can create their own valentines, and experts help people identify the vintage cards they have. These ornate valentines would often be kept safe in a chest, Wallace said, so families bring their old cards to the museum to understand what they are.
“We didn’t invent the valentine,” Wallace said, “but the valentine industry is something that impacts all of us at some point — we all receive a valentine. … It’s that creative spirit, it’s that individuality of expression and it’s a holiday everybody loves.”