Esther Howland and Valentine’s Day Cards

Esther Howland was an artist and businesswoman who popularized Valentine’s Day greeting cards in America in the 1800s.* She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1828 to Southworth Allen Howland, who operated the largest book and stationery store in Worcester. Her mother was Esther Allen Howland, author of The New England Economical Housekeeper, and Family Receipt Book, a regional cookbook that contained recipes, money-saving advice and medical remedies and was first published in 1844 by her husband.

Esther Howland. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

In 1847, the young Esther Howland after graduating from Mount Holyoke College became interested in Valentine’s Day cards. At the time, romantic valentine cards were imported from Europe and unaffordable to most Americans. Nineteen-year-old Howland saw these cards because her father “added to his stock a few imported valentines, the first which ever had been seen in Worcester,”[1] but she was not impressed. As noted in Barry Shank’s A Token of My Affection, a book about the American greeting card business:

“The years between 1847 and 1858 saw the great diversification of commercial valentine styles. In New York, the trade was dominated by engraving firms … Although they continued to produce sentimental valentines, by the mid-1850s these firms tended to emphasize their lines of comic valentines. Comics were cheaper to produce, as they continued to rely on the relatively simple production techniques of lithography and hand-tinting that had been the basis of commercial valentine production in the 1840s. Insofar as the complex crosscuttings of class formation intersected more frequently with everyday life than did the sentimental effusion of love, the potential audience for comics was considerably wider than that for sentimental valentines. In short, comics quickly became more profitable.”[2]

Esther Howland did not like comic valentines but she did love the romantic sentiments seen in the European Valentine’s Day cards that were “fancy affair[s] with a tiny, red-edged note in the center bearing a love message.”[3] She also thought she could create prettier cards than those being produced for the holiday. She therefore decided to fashion some artistic cards with the details reported years later by Osage City Free Press:

“Miss Howland took stiff letter paper scalloped and fringed the edges, cut heart-shaped holes in the corners, glued colored pictures that came with raisins and tea and such things, on this, put borders of lace paper that was used on the inside edges of fancy boxes … around the pictures and [her brother] hand-painted tittle verses on them.”[4]

Esther Howland - lace paper valentine attributed to her.

Lace paper valentine attributed to Esther Howland, ca 1855. Courtesy of the Met.

Once Howland had two or three dozen homemade valentines, another brother named Charles, who worked as a salesman, took them to Boston and New York and showed them to his regular customers hoping to get orders for the next season. According to legend, he did better than planned: Hoping for $200.00 worth of orders “in two or three weeks he had orders for several thousand dollars worth of them … which taxed even her remarkable resourcefulness.”[5] Whether true or not, even if she got a few orders, it was an positive beginning.  

Seeing the possibility of success, her father then allegedly got involved. He ordered some “small colored pictures” and got some embossed paper from England. In addition, he used his residence for her new-found business with “a little room … fitted up [for her].”[6] The Boston Globe also reported:

“Lithography was in its infancy, and small colored pictures were valued more highly than they are at present. She bought an assortment of these and a number of fancy envelopes which were embellished with a more a less elaborate scroll work in each corner, and which were regarded as the proper stationery at that time. ”[7]

Esther Howland home in Worcester, Massachusetts

Esther Howland’s home in Worcester, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Esther Howland cut out the basic design for each individual valentine and then hired four or five women to carefully copy each card she had designed. Things like paper lace, tinsel, and other things were used in preparing these homemade cards. As the women worked out of their own homes, a week or so later the finished products were picked up by a driver and returned to Esther for a final inspection.

At the time Valentine’s Day cards sold in America were “flat, with two-dimensional woodcuts or lithographed images.”[8] Howland’s cards were completely different. They began with a plain sheet of paper that then had glazed paper glued to them. Other strips of colored folded paper were then glued on top of the glazed paper. This raised the items that were next applied, and which included silver or gold lace paper. Other decorations were also added and whereas other Valentine’s Day card manufacturers used hearts, Howland used images of birds, cupids, or flowers. Thus, Howland’s cards stood out as she was able to create a three-dimensional look that by today’s standards might appear gaudy, but to Victorians were “beloved tokens” that expressed “intricate feelings.”

Esther Howland card produced between 1847-1870. Courtesy of the Met.

Esther Howland improved her cards during her first year. Charles took these improved cards of better quality and once again impressed potential customers. In fact, he found many willing and ready buyers and it is claimed Howland’s sales of her Valentine’s Day cards doubled the next year. “Many of these valentines were quite elaborate and costly, and among them were the first valentines of which satin and silk formed a part.”[9]

With a larger number of orders, Howland began to institute other changes and improvements. For instance, the same year that Madame Tussaud died in London was the same year that Howland began advertising her valentines with her first advertisement appearing in the Worcester Spy. She also reputedly created an assembly line to increase the number of Valentine’s Day cards that were produced with her early cards being “marked with a little red H.”[10] She also hired more bright, young women to copy her designs.

Success followed and Howland’s cards became extremely popular between 1855 and 1879. In fact, they were immediately recognizable. She became well-known in the card world because “no other producer of commercial valentines understood so well their potential for the tactile communication of complex feeling as did Esther Howland.”[11] There also began to be stories that touted or credited Howland with all sorts of accomplishments. However, it appears that some reports about Howland and her success are just plain fiction or have been exaggerated:

“She has been falsely credited with producing the first commercial valentines on this continent. Most accounts of her business claim that she was earning $100,00 a year during the 1850s, an utterly fantastic sum. Howland does seem to have initiated the portion of the Howland family business that was devoted to valentine production, distribution, and sales. She does seem to have been the person responsible for many – though certainly not all – of the stylistic innovations that transformed valentine design in the 1850s. But there is no evidence for the extravagant claims that ‘it was considered a privilege to work for Miss Howland, for she paid liberally and the work was light and pleasant,’ or that she ‘monopolized the business in the United States,’ or that she should be credited with inventing mass production and the ‘progressive assembly’ of products.”[12]

Esther Howland - produced by her in the 1870s

Decorative Valentine’s Day card produced by Esther Howland in the 1870s and titled “Affection.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Howland was however a hard and determined worker. This she demonstrated after she fell in 1866 and suffered complications. Despite the accident, it did not stop her from working:

“While on business in Boston she fell on an ice-covered sidewalk and broke her kneepan. She was confined to her bed several weeks, and then for three or four years made her designs and superintended her large and constantly growing business while seated in a wheel chair.”[13]

As she oversaw her creations Esther Howland began thinking about different ways to improve her business. This became obvious sometime between 1851 and 1875 when she published The Sentimental Valentine Writer, for Ladies and Gentlemen. It was a pocket-size “cheat sheet that gave tongue-tied lovers appropriate phrases with which to woo their love interests.”[14]

Esther Howland - The Sentimental Valentine

“The Sentimental Valentine” produced by Esther Howland. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian.

A few years later, in 1879, Howland moved her business out of her house to a factory and that same year published The New England Valentine Co.’s Valentine Verse Book. This 31-page book allowed customers to choose their own verse and glue it over the original verse found inside their card. There were 131 possibilities with the verses printed in three different sizes and available in red, green, blue, or gold ink.

Because of Esther Howland’s artistic designs and her ability to market and commercialize Valentine’s Day cards, she became known as the “Mother of the American Valentine.” Moreover, although claims may have been exaggerated about her and what she did for Valentine’s Day cards, she was extremely successful in her quest to produce them. The magazine Everyday Housekeeping reported in 1906:

“Miss Howland carried on the business for twenty years, during which time she amassed quite a fortune, finally disposing of the business to [George C. Whitney].”[15]

Several years earlier, Whitney had joined with his brother Sumner in operating a stationery store and as a sideline Sumner and his wife began crafting handmade valentines. After Sumner died, Whitney renamed the company The Whitney Valentine Company and began buying up his competitors. Howland in the meantime had joined with Edward Taft and in 1879 Whitney purchased their business. As the Industrial Revolution was in full swing hand-made cards were becoming a thing of past, so it was a good time for Howland and Taft to sell.

Whitney then created heart-shaped cards or featured hearts on the valentines he mass-produced. His business took off and he ultimately become the biggest producer of American valentines before his death in April of 1915. In addition, he expanded his line to include other holiday cards, as well as post cards, calendars, and books.

As to Esther Howland, after fracturing her femur in 1904 she remained bedridden for eight months and then died at the home she shared with her brother in Quincy on 15 March 1904. After her death some newspapers erroneously reported that she had died years early. However, it was not true as indicated by Globe’s report:

“Miss Esther A. Howland died last evening at the home of her brother, Edward P. Howland, 9 Adams st., where she had lived for 20 years. Miss Howland was 75 years old and had been in failing health since last June, when she fell and broke one of her legs. … Miss Howland has been a housekeeper for her brother for a number of years and the funeral services will be held at his home tomorrow afternoon.” [16]

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*Esther Howland was also named Esther Allen Howland after her mother but to be clear as to whom I am talking about I am referring to her as Esther Howland throughout this post.

References:

  • [1] The Boston Globe, “Made First Valentine in United States,” February 14, 1901, p. 6.
  • [2] B. Shank, A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 57.
  • [3] Wilcox Progressive Era, “First American Valentine,” February 11, 1909, p. 3.
  • [4] The Osage City Free Press, “Valentine Inventor,” April 22, 1903, p. 1.
  • [5] The Boston Globe, p. 6.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] B. Shank. 2004, p. 61.
  • [9] The Boston Globe, p. 6.
  • [10] The Baltimore Sun, “For Collectors of Antique Valentines: a Club, a Newsletter and a Price Guide,” February 24, 1991, p. 9K.
  • [11] B. Shank. 2004, p. 57.
  • [12] B. Shank. 2004, p. 58–59.
  • [13] The Boston Globe, “At Age of 75,” March 16, 1940, p. 6.
  • [14] “Esther Howland Valentine’s Writer,” American Antiquarian Society, https://www.americanantiquarian.org/509027.htm
  • [15] Everyday Housekeeping: A Magazine for Practical Housekeeping and Mothers v. 23 (New York: Clark Publishing Company, 1906), p. 485–86.
  • [16] The Boston Globe, p. 6.

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