The 1840s: Esther Howland Pioneers Commercial Valentine Cards

If you’ve ever given or received a fancy Valentine’s Day card, you may have Esther Howland to thank. Known as the “Mother of the American Valentine Industry,” Howland is credited with turning Valentine’s Day cards in the United States into big business. Her elaborate cards are now highly prized among collectors.  

Esther Howland Valentine Card ca. 1870s- photo from Wikicommons

It was the 1840s, and Esther Howland was living in Massachusetts. Her father owned a bookstore and sold Valentine’s Day cards imported from England. Exchanging friendship cards on Valentine’s Day was a tradition that dated as far back as the 1700s. With her artistic talent, Howland wondered if she could design cards to rival European imports. Fresh out of college, she gave it a shot.

Lithography was in its infancy, and small, colored pictures were highly valued. Howland bought an assortment of images and several fancy envelopes embellished with elaborate scrollwork in the corners. She cut out the scrollwork and pasted pictures and other artistic elements on the cards. She then scalloped the edges and penned verses of love. The cards sold quickly.

Howland’s brothers and father took an assortment of her cards to New York and Boston and, within a couple of weeks, received orders totaling several thousand dollars for the following season. Realizing there was a market for her cards, Howland gathered a large assortment of embellishments, including lace, satin, and silk. The family turned a small room in their home into a workshop and hired four young women to help make the cards.

Esther Howland about 1859: The Boston Globe, February 14, 1901

The following year, the orders more than doubled. Howland expanded operations to the third floor of the Howland residence and hired a workforce of young women, many of whom were family friends. The women sat around a large table, recreating Howland’s designs in assembly-line fashion. She paid her employees well, and the work was pleasant, making the job very desirable. In time, Howland added additional ornamentation to her cards, like enameled colored pictures and embossed lithographic design elements. She began stamping a red ink “H” on the back to distinguish her cards from others. Some of her more intricate cards reportedly sold for $35 – more than $1,000 in today’s dollars.

Before long, the card business was bringing in $100,000 a year and became known as the New England Valentine Co. Howland diversified, creating cards for other holidays and May baskets. An accidental fall on the ice in 1866 left Howland with a severely injured knee. She spent several years in a wheelchair but continued to build her successful business.

Sioux City Journal: April 7, 1908

In 1880, Howland decided to step away from her thriving business to care for her ailing father. She sold the New England Valentine Co. to George C. Whitney, one of her former employees. Esther Howland died in 1904 at the age of 75. She is remembered as the originator of the fancy valentine industry in America. To learn more about Esther Howland and the country’s first commercial Valentines, search™ today!  

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10 thoughts on “The 1840s: Esther Howland Pioneers Commercial Valentine Cards

  1. I really enjoy these stories in your FISHWRAP blog, of earlier times of our nation and the world. With the advent of the internet, I have to admit I’m like many others and have a shorter attention span for reading. These newspaper articles bring a lot of memories back to me, without having to read an entire novel. My emotions, both good and some not so good, leave me wanting to read more and more about these subjects.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not all THAT old. I’m guessing about 50% of all your feature articles deal with subject matter I was never aware of. Even the events I was aware of, I still gleaned a great deal of facts and figures that were new to me.

    Thanks again for your great efforts. Please keep up your excellent work! Very respectfully,

    1. Good question, Sherry. I didn’t take the time to research her tree but it sure would be interesting to know!

  2. Very interesting and informative article! I didn’t know all the details about the inventor of the Valentine. Thank you for sharing!

  3. This was very informative. I loved it. There are so many interesting publication in old newspaper. I read most of them from top to bottom.
    I have two of Ms. Howlands valentine’s. I had no idea that they were hers till I looked them over, They are beautiful.

  4. I believe I have 2 of Ms. Homeland’s Valentine cards. My great grandfather gave them to my great grandmother. I want to look for an H on the back of them. The only trouble is that my mom had them professionally framed and it will tear up the framework to remove them. Big decision to make!

  5. What a very interesting article about the beginnings of the Valentine industry in the U.S.

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