While Valentine’s Day has its origins in early Christian Rome, it was the Victorians who made it the holiday what it is today. And in the history of Victorian valentines, we find a story an American female entrepreneur who created mass-produced valentines on an assembly line, years before the more familiar assembly lines of Henry Ford and other male magnates.
Esther Howland first got the idea for her greeting card business shortly after she graduated from Mount Holyoke college at the age of nineteen. Someone who knew her stationer father had sent her a fancy manufactured valentine from England, which inspired her to create similar valentines to sell in the States.
Fun fact: While Mount Holyoke College proudly displays Howland’s products in its archives today, the institution’s founder was not impressed with the recent graduate’s cards. She forbade her nineteenth-century students to send “those foolish notes called valentines.” To see a video featuring the valentines in the Mount Holyoke archive, go here.
Howland created her first valentines from paper and lace she had imported from England. She soon discovered demand outpaced her supply and that her one-woman operation could not keep pace with the outpouring of love that happens every February 14th. She hired some friends, created an assembly line, and eventually grossed $100,000 a year.
Though Esther Howland’s valentines are vintage treasures today, you’re more likely to find a valentine than you are other kinds of paper ephemera from the 19th century. People cherish and keep valentines, antiquarians explain, so it’s not uncommon for their descendants to find the sweet nothings in forgotten trunks.
If you don’t have a trunk of your own that may be harboring vintage valentines, you can find some beautiful ones online. More online pictures of Victorian valentines are at the New York Public Library’s site. Many Victorian valentines displayed there feature movable parts such as a dial that moves within a lilac-festooned wheel of sentiments like “Truly Thine” and “Kiss Me.”