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Esther Howland and the Business of Love

Today’s guest post is by Mary Champagne, a reference librarian in the Main Reading Room. Her specialties are post-Civil War U.S. History and Anthropology.

Esther Howland, known as “New England’s first career woman,” was a visionary artist and entrepreneur who popularized Valentine’s Day cards in the United States. Beautiful and elaborate European valentines were available in mid-nineteenth-century America, but their cost and rarity limited their market to a wealthy elite. Stationers in New York City produced lithographed valentines in large quantities, but they could hardly compare to the handcrafted valentines Esther Howland made famous.

Esther Howland, “Mother of the American Valentine.” (Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

Esther Howland, “Mother of the American Valentine.” (Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society) http://gigi.mwa.org/

Esther Howland was born in 1828 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and her father was a successful stationer and bookseller of the firm S.A. Howland & Sons. She graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847, and that same year, Esther received her first English valentine. She and her friends found the valentine charming, but with the spirit of a true entrepreneur, Esther also recognized its potential. She persuaded her father to order lace paper, paper flowers, and other supplies from England, Germany, and New York City, and she created a dozen valentine designs. Esther’s brother Allen reluctantly agreed to take the samples on his next sales trip for S.A. Howland & Sons. Esther estimated that Allen might take orders for about $200 of valentines, but she was stunned when Allen returned with $5,000 worth of orders for her cards.

The Summer Street home where Esther Howland perfected her assembly line production technique. (Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

The Summer Street home where Esther Howland perfected her assembly line production technique. (Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

A room was set aside on the third floor of the Howland’s Summer Street residence, Esther gathered a group of friends to assist in filling her orders, and a valentine business was born. Esther cut the basic design for the individual valentines, and the assembled group carefully copied each card. Each young lady was assigned a special task; one cut out pictures and kept them assorted in boxes and another made the backgrounds, passing them to yet another worker who gave the card further embellishment. By the end of 1849 Esther Howland had fully launched her valentine business and perfected her “assembly line” technique. Perhaps we should credit Esther Howland rather than Henry Ford with the development of mass production! At least during the early years of her business, Ms. Howland reportedly inspected every valentine produced by the women in her family workroom.

In 1850, Esther provided her brother with a greater assortment of samples, creating elaborate and expensive cards using silk, satin, and lace, and the first advertisement for her valentines appeared in the Worcester Daily Spy in February of the same year. A simple Howland card sold for five cents, but cards with ribbon trimmings, pages of artistic illustrations, hidden doors, and gilded lace may have sold for as much as one dollar – a considerable sum of money at the time. Howland’s orders doubled, and her work force increased. She created Christmas and New Year’s cards, birthday cards, booklets and May baskets. Cards were sent all over the country, and sales eventually grew to $100,000 annually.

A typical Howland design used brightly-colored paper wafers below the lace paper. (Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

A typical Howland design used brightly-colored paper wafers below the lace paper. (Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society) http://gigi.mwa.org/

While Valentine’s Day cards were available in the United States for more than half a century before Esther Howland started her business, she is known as the first to commercially distribute English-type hand-decorated valentines. She is also credited with several innovations: Esther used small, brightly colored glazed wafers of paper, which she placed in corners under the lace paper. She also had an aversion to mottoes on the outside of her valentines and instead used conventional verses, printed and lithographed on small slips, which were pasted on the inside page. They likely came in sheets and were cut apart and inserted by the workers on her “assembly line.”

A classic example of a Howland valentine used gilded lace paper made in England. Folded paper springs enabled separate layers to rise up, creating a dramatic shadow-box effect. (Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

A classic example of a Howland valentine used gilded lace paper made in England. Folded paper springs enabled separate layers to rise up, creating a dramatic shadow-box effect. (Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society) http://gigi.mwa.org/

Howland is also credited with the introduction of the “lift-up” valentine, which consisted of several paper-lace motifs that were built up in tiers. Looking through the openings provided a unique picture in the center. This type of card was particularly effective when placed in an ornamental box made specifically to display these special valentines.

In the early 1870s Esther Howland incorporated as the New England Valentine Company. She continued to conduct business from her home until 1879, when she moved to a factory on Main Street. Howland’s creativity certainly did not cease once her business grew, and she continued to recognize and meet the needs of her customers. Ms. Howland stated: “It is frequently the case that a valentine is found to suit, but the verse or sentiment is not right.” She therefore published The New England Valentine Co.’s Valentine Verse Book for 1879, intended for buyers who found a beautiful card but with an unsuitable verse inside. The book contained a total of a 131 verses printed in red, green, gold, and blue, in three different sizes. A verse could be chosen from the book, cut out, and pasted over the original verse inside the card.

In 1880, Esther Howland sold her business to care for her ailing father. Named the “Mother of the American Valentine” in a newspaper after her death in 1904, Howland’s enduring claim to fame lies not only in having produced the first elaborate, handcrafted valentines in the United States, but also in having popularized Valentine’s Day cards across the country. Today’s multi-billion dollar greeting card industry is heavily indebted to the creativity, work ethic, and business acumen of Esther Howland.

References/further reading:

Kerr, Joan P. “The Amorous Art of Esther Howland.” American Heritage February/March 1982: 25-29.

Laura Porter Photography by Tom Rettig. “Be My Valentine: Worcester’s Legacy at Heart of the Matter.” Telegram & Gazette 18 November 2013: A87.

Lee, Ruth Webb. A History of Valentines. New York: Studio Publications, 1952.

Staff, Frank. The Valentine and Its Origins. New York: Praeger, 1969.

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