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OSV explores Valentine's Day history

OSV explores Valentine's Day history
An Esther Howland valentine, courtesy of Worcester Historical Museum.

Reminder Publicaions submitted photo

STURBRIDGE — Old Sturbridge Village (OSV) will explore the history of two hallmarks of the Valentine's Day holiday with its new event, "Be Mine: Chocolate and Valentines," on Feb. 12 and 13.
Visitors will "meet" Esther Howland, the local woman who is responsible for popularizing valentines in the United States and see examples of antique valentines.
Costumed historians will demonstrate how chocolate was processed by hand using cacao beans in the original manner of ancient Mexico — where chocolate originates — and prepare 19th century chocolate, which was almost exclusively a beverage.
Special activities for children include making your own valentine, ice skating — bring your own skates — horse-drawn sleigh rides around the Common and sledding on 1830s-style sleds, weather permitting.
After enjoying the museum's outdoor winter activities, visitors can warm up indoors beside one of the village's many cozy fireplaces and take part in hands-on crafts and activities.
Children can also spend time "pretending" in OSV's popular "KidStory" indoor play area.
Chocolate — From bean to beverage
From the time of its origins until the 1850s, chocolate was almost exclusively enjoyed as a beverage. The method for transforming the cacao beans into a drink did not change dramatically over the centuries and OSV historians will demonstrate this process. They will use the traditional Mexican method, grinding freshly roasted chocolate nibs — or seeds — that will eventually be used in the chocolate liquor for a hot, spiced chocolate.
OSV historians will also prepare a "chocolate cake" using an 1824 recipe from Mary Randolph in "The Virginia Housewife." Copies of the historical recipes will be given to visitors, who may be surprised to learn that "chocolate cake" does not actually contain any chocolate. The name comes from the fact that the cake was intended to be enjoyed with a cup of chocolate, as the name "coffee cake" implies today.
The cacao beans used to make chocolate come from plants grown in the tropical regions of southern Mexico, Guatemala and other Mesoamerican and northern South American countries.
Traditionally, the seeds and pulp of the cacao tree are fermented for three to five days in the hot, steamy jungle. The seeds are then air dried and then roasted until their outer shells can be removed, a process known as winnowing. After winnowing, the remaining inner part of the seed is known as the nib. The nibs are then ground on a heated stone slab known as a metate, with a rounded or squared rolling pin/pestle called a mano. As the nibs are ground the cocoa butter starts to melt, resulting in a semi-liquid mass known as chocolate liquor.
The Spanish learned about chocolate when conquistadors arrived in Central America in the 16th century. They took it back to Europe where it became prized by Spanish royalty. Only after several members of the royal family married outside the country was chocolate introduced to areas outside the Spanish territories.
The local valentine connection
Visitors to OSV will "meet" Esther Howland, the Worcester woman called the "Mother of the American Valentine," and learn how she transformed the way that Americans celebrate Valentine's Day. They will see examples of antique valentines and can view portraits of her parents, which hang year round in the village's Fitch House.
In 1847, Howland was a recent graduate of what was then-called The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and the daughter of a stationery store owner. She received an English valentine card from one of her father's associates and believed that she could make cards that were as beautiful. Sending ornate, sentimental cards was popular in England at the time, but not yet in the United States. She soon began hand-making the cards with imported paper lace and floral decorations from England.
The valentines were immediately popular and soon she recruited friends to help her keep up with demand. What began on the third floor of the family's home developed into a hugely successful business, grossing $100,000 annually at its peak. She retired in 1881 to care for her ailing father and sold the business to the George C. Whitney Company, which continued to prosper as a leader in the industry until 1942 when the wartime paper shortage caused the company to close. At that time, Whitney was the largest greeting card company in the world and Worcester was at the center of the valentine industry for nearly a century.
OSV is open year-round. Winter hours are Wednesday to Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the village is open on all Monday holidays. Admission is $20 for adults; $18 for seniors; $7 for children ages 3 to 17; children under 3 are admitted free.
Each admission includes free parking and a free second-day visit within 10 days. For details, visit www.osv.org or call 800-SEE-1830.