American ‘Mother of Valentines’ Started Mass Distribution Of Cards

As Valentine’s Day approaches and omicron infections continue to wane (we hope!), the Historical Society plans to hold its February Valentine Second Saturday Social on Feb. 12, two days ahead of the actual holiday. That should allow plenty of time to indulge in the tradition of crafting homemade Valentines instead of dashing to Walgreens for a last-minute purchase. We’ll have all sorts of supplies at the Baugh House (44th and Robb Street) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., for those who stop by to craft an original masterpiece card, either for a special someone or to send to area assisted-living facilities.

Though the holiday commemorates the mysterious St. Valentine, who was actually a combination of three Christian martyrs beheaded or burned for preaching the wrong message during Rome’s glory days under Claudius II, the current practice of giving cards with brief loving messages dates to Victorian England. 

Yet, while the English enjoyed tea and cards with witty verses in their gardens during the last half of the 19th century, war-torn America was trying to heal its many differences, and folks were expanding ever westward in search of gold or land. There was simply no time to sit around and compose poetry or paste ribbons and lace on colored paper.

Thanks be to Esther A. Howland, who came to be known as the “Mother of Valentines.” This industrious young woman, soon after graduating from Mt. Holyoke College in 1847 at the age of 19, pulled together her talent for designing ornate cards decorated with bits of ribbon, lace and silk with her family’s connections in the print and distribution business, and, voilà, America got its first mass distribution of Valentine cards. 

Intrigued by a Valentine she received that had been produced in England, Howland began designing ornate cards with four-line verses inside. Her father, owner of the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, Mass., displayed her cards in his store. Her brother, a traveling salesman with the family company, took a dozen samples with him on his next trip. Esther hoped to make at least $200 in orders and was astonished when he returned with $5,000 worth. She hired friends and neighbor women to make the delicate cards in an assembly line to fulfill that first order and, eventually, developed her dream into a thriving business that put Worcester on the map as the center of American Valentine production.

Her cards quickly became the standard for Valentine cards in America – beautifully crafted covers made with “scraps” of ribbon, lace, colored paper and silk and featuring original pictures and drawings. The inside contained a short four-line poem expressing love, such as:

“You say my heart, my too fond heart,
Is cold, my dear, to you;
Ah! canst thou such a thought impart
To one who loves so true?”

Today, an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent every year, thanks in part to Howland, making the mid-winter holiday the second largest card-sending holiday of the year.

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