Why Esther Howland Is Called the "Mother of the American Valentine"
Historians credit her for building a business selling valentines in her hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.
While Valentine's Day has potential roots in the pagan fertility festival Lupercalia, we have one woman we can thank for some of the modern expressions of romance that we use to celebrate today: Esther Howland, who was born in 1828, introduced and commercialized the concept of mass-produced Valentine's greeting cards in the United States. Handmade cards and correspondences of love were not a new concept in the 1800s—they had been circulating in Europe since at least the 15th century, and by the early 19th century, the U.K. was producing significant numbers of commercial valentines. As the daughter of a stationery store owner, in Worcester, Massachusetts, she became enamored with valentines imported from England. They were beautiful, but also very expensive. So, she set up shop in the Howland home, using the family's connections to gather lace, colored paper, and other card-making accoutrements.
Howland tapped into the sentimentality of Valentine's Day by adding ornate touches to her cards. She used glitter, which was a novelty embellishment, and she also crafted more expensive cards that incorporated luxury fabrics and materials such as silk, lace, and satin. These cards were more expensive and sold for a whole dollar in the 1800s (equivalent to $20 in 2020), but the demand for her more ornate offerings exceeded the demand for simpler the alternatives she made, which sold for a nickel. Howland wasn't afraid to experiment with her designs, either. She revolutionized the idea of cards that open to reveal messages, as opposed to the typical one-page card with a message on the front or back. Another one of her innovations is the "lift-up" valentine: To make it, Howland layered paper-lace motifs in such a way that it added three-dimensional depth to the card and featured a picture in the center. These cards were meant to be displayed, often in a special ornamental box.
Each of her cards were handmade; this was unusual for the time, given that most other cards were also mass produced. According to Mary Champagne, a reference librarian in the Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress, ornate handmade cards like these were often too expensive for everyday people to purchase, and such cards were never made in large quantities. Other cards that were mass produced were not handmade; instead, those options were created using a lithograph machine. That's why Howland's handmade Valentine's Day cards stood out: Not only were they beautifully handcrafted, but they were also mass produced and still affordable.
According to her alma mater Mount Holyoke College, Holland's card designs caught the attention of enough shoppers that she was able to start her own business. She hired a team of women to assemble the cards. And as a fine example of independent womanhood in the 19th century, Howland is among the "first employers to pay women a decent wage," as described by Michele Karl in her book Greetings With Love: The Book of Valentines. Her business grew to include cards for other holidays, and she began making $100,000-plus in annual sales (about $3 million in today's money). Her company, aptly named the New England Valentine Company, and had a successful run until she retired in 1881. Her distinctive cards—look for her signature red "H" on the back of the card—are cherished by collectors to this day.
Despite the romantic nature of her business, Howland never married. And yet the popularity of her unique cards was a social phenomenon that changed the way Americans thought of February 14. In fact, a newspaper in 1904 called her the "Mother of the American Valentine" after she passed away. Her legacy is best said in three little words, "I love you."