Esther Howland built up a business selling Valentines in her hometown of Worcester, Mass., leaving the city’s fame as the Valentine Capital of America.
Thought she made a fortune promoting romantic sentiments, she never married herself.
Esther Howland was called ‘The Mother of the American Valentine,’ but a more accurate description might have been ‘Mother of the Professional American Woman.’
She was a 19th century businesswoman in Worcester, Mass., who popularized expensive English-style Valentines with lots of lace, colored paper and three-dimensional effects. And her thriving Valentine business employed women for decades.
Esther Howland was born in Worcester in 1828 to Southworth and Esther Howland. Her father owned a large bookbindery and stationery business. She attended Mount Holyoke Academy in South Hadley, Mass., at the same time Emily Dickinson studied there.
After graduating from college, Esther went into the Valentine business. According to one story, she saw Valentines from London in her father’s store. According to another, a business associate of her father’s gave her an English Valentine. Whatever happened, she thought she could make prettier ones herself. She could.
She subsequently ordered lace and colored paper from England and small lithographs from New York. With those materials she made some Valentines and sent them with her salesman brother on his out-of-town customer calls. She said she hoped he came back with $200 in orders, but he returned with $5,000 in orders, an astounding figure for the time that not everyone believes.
What is certain is that Esther Howland’s sentimental, romantic Valentines were popular. She hired some of her friends and set up a Valentine assembly line in her home. For decades she would be a steady employer in Worcester.
The Red H
Esther Howland never married. She was remembered as an aristocratic woman with high color and glossy chestnut hair. She drove high-stepping horses, dressed fashionably and had facials.
Her innovations included layers of lace, wafers of colored paper beneath lace, three-dimensional accordion effects and moving parts. Her cards had a red ‘H’ on the back of the card to distinguish them from rivals. Some of her most elaborate Valentines cost $50.
Since 2001, the U.S. Greeting Card Association has been awarding an annual ‘Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary.’
She said her business, the New England Valentine Company, grossed $100,000 annually. In 1874 she moved the Valentine factory from her home to Harrington Corner. Along the way she suffered a knee injury, which forced her to use a wheelchair.
Then in 1881, she sold the company to George C. Whitney, who owned the Whitney Valentine Co. in Worcester. Whitney further expanded the Valentine business.
For many years Whitney’s factory churned out Valentines. Then in 1942, war shortages ended operation of one of the largest greeting card companies in the world.
This story about Esther Howland was updated in 2020.