Esther Howland, at age 19, never thought when she received an expensive European paper Valentine from a business associate of her father’s, she would one day be known as the “Mother of the American Valentine.”
Beautifully decorated with ornate cut-out paper flowers, a lace border, and a small envelope in the center containing a love note, the Valentine card touched Esther in a way that was probably not intended. Whether or not the business associate attempted to court her, or if she accepted his affection is unknown but because of Esther’s entrepreneurial spirit, she soon became the first person in history to mass produce what we know today as the Valentine card.
Born in 1828 in Worcester, Massachusetts to Edward Howland, the owner of a successful book and stationary store, and her mother of the same name, Esther Howard, an author, young Esther seemed destined to have a career in the arts and letters.
After receiving the Valentine from her father’s colleague, Esther liked the idea so much she asked her father to order the appropriate materials, and she set out to make her own cards. She made about 12-15 prototypes. Her brother, a salesman for their father’s company, added the dozen samples to his inventory and took them on his next sales trip. He returned with more than $5,000 in advanced sales for the charming Valentines.
Overwhelmed with the order, Esther recruited friends and neighbors to create one of the first known assembly-lines in business history. She was able to fulfill the orders, and her business was born. Her products, known for their original beauty, and innovative romantic messages, were available for a wide range of prices. More elaborate cards including gilded lace, ribbon, hidden doors, and interior envelopes that allowed for locks of hair or engagement rings, sold for up to fifty dollars. Simpler cards could be purchased for as little a five cents.
As with any successful venture, there soon appeared competitors vying for a spot in the lucrative Valentine’s Day card market. To distinguish herself from the rest, Esther had her cards made with the stamp of a red letter H on the back of her cards, along with the letters N.E.V. Co, which stood for the name of her business, the New England Valentine Company. It wasn’t long before Esther was having her staff make Christmas cards, New Years cards, Birthday cards, and May baskets.
In 1879, Esther’s company outgrew her home operation, and she moved the business to a factory building. In that same year, she published the “Valentine Verse Book.” The book contained over 130 Valentine verses printed in different colored inks, that could be cut out and pasted to a Valentine card, or adhered over a card’s existing message.
In 1880, after a tremendous career, Esther sold her company in order to take care of her ill father. Fifteen years later, in 1904, she fractured her leg and was bedridden. She died within the year.
Esther, an empowered woman and entrepreneur, saw the seedling of an incredible idea and then grew it into her own field of flowers, setting an example for women of her era and beyond. She provided a simple yet beautiful way for people to meaningfully express their love and devotion to one another, and she will always be known as the Mother of the American Valentine.
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