Esther Howland (1828-1904) was not the first person to make commercial Valentines in America. She wasn’t even the first to make them in Worcester Massachusetts. But at a time when women were not encouraged to have careers, she accomplished what was nearly impossible. Esther Howland Valentines launched a lucrative business that eventually made $100,000 annually (more than $3 million today). Her business thrived despite growing competition for more than 30 years.
Valentine’s Day had been celebrated for centuries. A Valentine sent in 1415 by the imprisoned Duke of Orleans to his wife is displayed in the British Library of London. By the Victorian Era, Valentines became increasingly popular in England and throughout Europe, but elaborate Valentines were available only to the wealthy.
With industrialization, papers and printing became more available as did postage. Stationers in America began selling affordable lithographed valentines, but their quality did not compare to those handmade in Europe.
At the same time, the concept of romantic love was flourishing. (Never mind the Vinegar Valentines!) Esther Howland saw a great opportunity and seized it. Her goal was to serve a growing market with high quality, innovative Valentines at a reasonable price.
A native of Worcester, Esther Howland was born in 1828. Her mother, Esther Allen Howland, wrote a cookbook, The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book. Her father, Southworth Allen Howland, published it for ten years. He owned the largest bookbindery and stationery store in Worcester.
Esther Howland graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847. The school was only ten years old but it was already recognized as one of the most rigorous academic institutions for women. As a pioneer for higher education for women, Mt. Holyoke emboldened its students to break traditional boundaries.
Howland and her classmates (including Emily Dickinson) were known to exchange Valentine letters. Ironically, the school later banned the holiday for being too frivolous. Despite that, the Holyoke philosophy clearly resonated with Esther Howland.
Upon receiving a Valentine imported from Europe when she was nineteen, Howland’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.
She gathered lace, fancy papers and other supplies from England and New York City and created several valentine samples. She gave these to her brother who reluctantly took them on his next sales trip for S.A. Howland & Sons, her father’s company.
Esther Howland Valentine samples were a huge success. She had hoped for $200 in advance orders, but received more than $5,000 worth. The reception of her new product surpassed all expectations. It was much like F.W. Woolworth discovering the unexpected market for Christmas tree bulbs in 1880.
Esther Howland initially hired friends to help her fill the orders. She organized a room on the third floor of the family’s residence on 68 Summer Street in Worcester.
Howland cut the main design of each Valentine. She then passed them down the line to the other women who had been assigned various tasks. Some cut paper flowers or printed images, while others created backgrounds. Each person accomplished her part then handed the partially complete valentine to the next person to add their part. Howland inspected the final Valentines for quality control.
Howland has become known for her business acumen. In addition to recognizing a market opportunity and capitalizing on it, she:
-created an effective production assembly line.
-paid her people well and offered excellent working conditions.
-served a wide range of buyers by offering Valentines ranging from 5 cents to $1
-offered the highest quality possible for each price point and maintained quality control
-branded each Valentine with a red “H”
-utilized traditions that resonated with her buyers, such as the language of flowers
Esther Howland Valentines were constantly evolving. She was responsible for many product innovations including:
– flaps with surprised underneath them
-wafers of brightly colored paper behind lace
-folded paper “springs” that created multiple dimensions and movement
-“lift-ups” made from several layers of lace
-created booklets of verses in various fonts so customers could customize their Valentines.
She also expanded her market over time to include ornamental boxes to display and store her Valentines. Eventually, she marketed cards for other holidays including Christmas, New Years birthdays and Easter.
Over time, the cottage industry built around Esther Howland Valentines grew into a company that made $100,000 annually. It also helped spawn the billion-dollar industry we know today. Howland was known as an independent woman who took her buggy solo to New York City to conduct business and purchase supplies. Despite a career fueled by romantic love, she never married.
While many people say that Esther Howland Valentines were the first made in Worcester if not in America, the Worchester History.org points out that this might not be entirely true. According to the Taft family of Worcester, Jotham Taft and his wife built a successful valentine industry from their home in the early 1840s.
In her book, The History of Valentines, author Ruth Webb Lee gives Esther Howland credit for being the first. In the 1985 article “Who Began Valentines in America,” (Supplement to the Blackstone Valley Tribune), this statement raised the hackles of the Tafts. “Rose Taft struck up a lively correspondence with Lee and Taft’s son Norman, and the two women ‘disliked each other intensely.’”
The Tafts maintain that by the time Esther Howland graduated from Holyoke in 1847, Taft was already running a valentine operation in Grafton. Further, Rose Taft claims that her husband taught Howland how to make valentines.
The business of Valentines in America escalated after the Civil War. According to the New York Times, February 4, 1867, post offices in New York City delivered 21,260 Valentines. In 1863, the number rose slightly. The number dropped to 15,924 in 1864. But with the Civil War coming to a close in 1865, the number increased to 66,000 followed by 86,000 in 1866.
You can see samples of Victorian Valentines at the Phillips Library Digital Collection.
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