02/13/2013 12:30 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

The Mother of the American Valentine

It's ironic that the woman who helped create an industry based on love and romance seemingly never experienced those things in her own life.

It was said that Miss Esther Howland, dubbed the "Mother of the American Valentine," lived vicariously through her card empire. To this day, she is often credited as the brain child behind the production of the first elaborate, European-style, hand-assembled valentines in America. Certainly, today's multibillion-dollar greeting card industry is indebted to her foresight and talent.

I had never heard of Esther Howland until recently. Her story, which I stumbled upon while surfing the Internet, intrigued me and captured my imagination.

Born in 1828, Esther grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1847, she graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College). She was 19. Under the tutelage of Mary Lyon, the school's progressive founder, Esther excelled in her studies, perhaps determined to follow the advice of her teacher who told her students to "go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do."

After graduation, Esther received an elaborate English valentine from one of her father's business associates. Was it a declaration of his love for her? No one knows for sure. And although Esther was said to be impressed by the card, she was certain she could do better.

As the story goes, Esther convinced her father, Southworth Allen Howland, owner of a successful bookstore and stationery shop based in Worcester, to order lace paper and other supplies from England and New York City. From these materials, she made a dozen valentine samples, which her brother, a traveling salesman for the family store, added to his book and stationery catalog for his next sales trip.

Esther was stunned when her brother returned home with more than $5,000 (the equivalent of about $150,000 in 2012) in advance sales. Bolstered by this demand, she laid out plans for production, organizing an all-female assembly line. And like that, Esther's valentine venture, which produced beautiful cards at a wide range of prices, was born. Advertising and word-of-mouth led to a $100,000 per year business (the equivalent of millions today).

Esther's entrepreneurial vision was considered revolutionary, not only from a feminist standpoint (at that time few women started businesses; even fewer who did start businesses got married) but also from the perspective of the American valentine industry - one that had been sorely lacking in grace, elegance, and beauty.

Although much was written about Esther's impressive business successes, other aspects of her existence were a bit hazy.

Unfortunately, my Internet sleuthing left me empty-handed when it came to some of the more intimate details of Esther's life, but with Valentine's Day on the horizon and my imagination getting the better of me, I began to creatively fill in the blanks. What was Esther like in her personal life? How did she really feel about love and romance? Did she have many suitors? Why did she never marry? Were the lines on the inside of her cards, such as the following, inspired by a real-life romance?

"Love/or Love Deal' youth
I do accept your heart,
And value much the prize
For tho'you ne'er did tell your love,
I read it in your eyes."

Or was Esther simply more interested in the romance of business than in the business of romance? Did she ultimately sacrifice one for the other? Without knowing the real specifics of her life, other than the fact that she was confined to a wheelchair at 38 and died single and unmarried at 76, I was left to imagine the answers to these particular questions.

I envisioned a rich but lonely woman staring out a window as she formulated the poetic words to be written inside her elaborate lace creations, words that she would never fully be able to comprehend.

Maybe the closest thing to Eros in Esther's life was the fantastical world of other people's romances. Maybe she was content surrounding herself with the idea of love and was too busy running a valentine card empire to make room for a little romance of her own. Maybe Esther made the choice of career over love. Would she have been able to succeed in her business back then if she had chosen to also get married, raise children and take care of a home? An even sadder thought: Maybe she was left with no choice, because men of that day looked down on women with entrepreneurial ambitions (oh, how far we've come!).

As I continued to reflect on what I knew of Esther's life and what I imagined it to be, it dawned on me that her legacy was truly what mattered. Because of Esther and, certainly, women like her, who proved to the world that a female could successfully forge paths outside of hearth and home, it became possible for future generations of women to do the same. Esther's ambition enabled today's woman to have more choices in life, to realize her potential, to choose her own destiny.

On a day that many single women detest, this is surely something to celebrate.

If Esther consciously and purposefully made this sacrifice, it turns out it was more than just a personal one; it was a sacrifice for female posterity, a sacrifice that ultimately helped other women gain the ability to, in the words of her old Mount Holyoke teacher, "go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do."

For your sacrifice, Esther, this is my valentine to you.