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.
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.
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.
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 Newspapers.com™ today!