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The Mother of American Valentines

This Tuesday will be Valentine's Day. It is big business and this year Americans are expected to spend over $26 billion. Of that, 40% will go to greeting cards. According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year (more cards are sent at Christmas). Here is the story how they became a popular part of the occasion in America and the woman behind it.

Esther Howland Valentine Card, ca. 1870

Esther A. Howland was born on 17 August 1828 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, Southworth Allen Howland, owned one of the largest bookstores and binderies in Worcester and was considered a very enterprising man. His three sons assisted him in the business, known as S.A. Howland & Sons. He sold Valentine’s Day cards imported from England, but they were expensive and hard to come by. They also found little favor in puritanical New England, where parents characterized them as immodest and improper. Exchanging friendship cards on Valentine’s Day was a tradition that dated as far back as the 1700's.

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 A. Howland (1828-1904)

Esther attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary studied English grammar, history and geography. After graduating in 1847, she received a valentine card from one of her father's business associates in 1849. With her artistic talent, Esther wondered if she could design cards to rival European imports. She thought that it would be not great task and, encouraged by her parents, decided to give it a shot.

Lithography was in its infancy, and small, colored pictures were highly valued. Esther 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, having an aversion to mottos printed on the front of cards, she invented the "lift-up" or flap with a message written beneath it. One of her brothers, who was an accomplished penman, inscribed various verses of love. The cards sold for as little as 15 cents and for as much as 75 cents, an enormous amount at a time when the average American worker made less than a dollar a day. They sold quickly.

Esther’s brothers and father took an assortment of two or three dozen cards to New York and Boston and, within a couple of weeks, received orders totaling several thousand dollars for the following season. Originally hoping for $200 in orders, she quickly realized that there was a market for her cards. Esther gathered a large assortment of embellishments, including lace, satin, and silk. The family converted 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. Esther 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 Esther’s designs in assembly-line fashion (before Henry Ford implemented the same strategy), a process that she believed would be the most efficient and effective way to complete the valentine orders in time. She paid her employees well, and the work was pleasant, making the job very desirable. In time, Esther added additional ornamentation to her cards, like enameled colored pictures and embossed lithographic design elements. She began stamping an "H" in red ink on the top left corner on the back to distinguish her cards from others. Later ones were embossed with "N.E.V. Co." Some of her more intricate cards reportedly sold for $35 (more than $1,000 in today’s dollars).

Before long, the card business produced sales of $100,000 a year (about $3 million today) and became incorporated as the New England Valentine Company in the early 1870's. Gradually the trade extended as far west as California. Esther diversified, creating cards for other holidays.

She also made May Baskets, which were quite popular at that time. The first day of May evoked good tidings and sweet little gifts for loved ones and neighbors, from those weary of winter and thankful for spring. May Baskets were used to commemorate the turn of chilly and rainy months into warmer and happier ones. The tradition dates back to pagan rituals in the 12th and 13th centuries in Germany. The traditional gift was a small basket, often handmade, with a few flowers and trinkets or other homemade treats, sneakily hung on the front door handle. It was also common for boys to leave a May Basket on the door of the girl they were especially smitten with and then run away. If the recipient opened the door to see her admirer running away, she could chase him down and give him a little kiss.

The first very elaborate May Basket that Esther made sold for $10 and was purchased by a young man. He then hung it on the front door of his fiancée's residence. When she received it, she almost broke his heart by telling him that a man who was fool enough to pay $10 for a May Basket would not suit her for a husband and straightaway dismissed him. After hearing about this incident, Esther laughingly remarked that she never made so expensive a May Basket again.

While on business in Boston in 1866, Esther fell on an ice-covered sidewalk and severely injured her knee. She was confined to her bed for several weeks and then spent four years in a wheelchair, but continued to make her designs and constantly build her successful business.

She continued to conduct business from her home until 1879, when she moved to a factory on Main Street. Esther’s creativity certainly did not cease once her business grew, and she continued to recognize and meet the needs of her customers. She 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.

A remarkable feature of the valentine business at this time was that Esther had no competitor except the foreign imports. She monopolized the business in the United States. One large company in New York, whose order almost doubled every year until it amounted to $25,000, made her a liberal offer to control her goods and another to buy her business. Both offers were declined.

What money could not do, filial love accomplished. In 1880, Esther's father met with an accident and required constant attention. She 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. After her father died in 1882, Esther moved to Quincy, MA to be a housekeeper for her brother, Edward.

While she successfully commercialized love, Esther apparently never found love herself and never married. In 1903 she fractured a femur and was bedridden for eight months. She died on 15 March 1904 at the age of 75. Newspapers across the country reported her passing, labeling her, variously, as “the inventor of valentines” and, rather harshly, as a “New England spinster.”

Yet, like true love, Esther's legacy has endured. A selection of her work resides alongside some of the greatest artwork in the world at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Although she was not the first person to make and sell valentines in the United States, her designs and business savvy had an enormous impact on the valentine and greeting card industry. She was among the very first people to ever mass-produce valentines (possibly the first in the U.S.), and her products proved to be the most influential.

She is remembered as the originator of the fancy valentine industry in America and was one of America's first successful business women, especially at a time when it was not the norm. She made herself wealthy and employed and empowered untold numbers of women.

Three Valentines created by Esther Howland (Metropolitan Museum Collection)



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