We’ve all been told at one time or another that Valentine’s Day is merely a holiday invented by corporations like Hallmark, but that could not be farther from the truth. In actuality, the origins of the holiday date back to the Roman Empire, starting with the execution of St. Valentine and then Lupercalia, a festival celebrating the start of spring. How did the tradition of Valentine’s cards become popular in America? (Un)Surprisingly, we have a woman to thank for that.
Known as the Mother of the modern American Valentine, Esther Howland was born into an entrepreneurial family with feminist roots in Worcester, MA. Her father ran a stationery shop. Her mother authored the prevalent The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book, a guide to domestic accounting and cookbook, featuring advice and tips on living frugally. Esther was one of the first women to graduate from Mount Holyoke College. When she graduated in the 1840s, Valentine’s Day cards were gaining popularity, but most were imported from Europe and were not accessible to many Americans. Esther decided to set up a card-making business on the third floor of her home to fulfill this need.
Her first year, she sent samples with her brother on a sales trip expecting to get about 200 orders; he came back with 5000! She employed local Massachusetts women to produce the intricate cards she designed, which were often three dimensional and included expensive materials such as lace, silk, and embossed paper, as well as cut-outs showcasing romantic symbols of love. The Library of Congress has noted that Esther Howland, rather than Henry Ford, may have been the original inventor of the “assembly line” technique for mass production. Each woman she employed had a specific task, like cutting out lacy decorations to gluing materials onto cards’ backgrounds. It is also said she originated cards with movement, being the first to place messages under or inside, which would be revealed to the receiver by lifting the material or opening. Her couture cards weren’t cheap; each sold for about $1, which today would equate to somewhere between $25-33 – and you thought a Hallmark card was expensive!
Being a female business owner is tough even in today’s society; imagine being one in the late 1800s! Still, Esther challenged societal gender norms by employing women and helping them ensure their financial independence. She also did most of it from a wheelchair, as she suffered a debilitating knee injury in her early 30s. Her company became one of the largest card companies in the US, and after 40 years, she sold it to a competitor so she could take care of her ailing father. Now that’s love.
Happy Valentine’s Day from Esther Howland, an OG Hot Girl!
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READ: Valentine’s Day Cards Have A Super Feminist History — And It All Starts With This Woman
LISTEN: Missing History – Episode 20: Esther Howland & Jessie Redmon Fauset