When Esther Howland was 19, she received a gift from a colleague of her father who had returned from England. It was a paper card embroidered with ornate lace and cut out flowers. A light green envelope adorned the center, which contained a red-bordered letter carrying an inscription.
It was a valentine.
The gift must have made quite an impression on Howland, a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke Women's Seminary. Or perhaps not. It occurred to her that she could make (and sell) something even better, and she quickly set out to do just that.
The Birth of the American Valentine
Howland was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1828, the daughter of Southworth Allen Howland and Esther Allen Howland.
Entrepreneurship seemed to run in the family’s DNA. Howland’s father owned and operated the largest book and stationery store in the county, while her mother wrote a cookbook that became an American classic: The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book, a regional recipe book that emphasized frugality and self-reliance that can still be purchased today.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Esther Howland, upon receiving her valentine, would see not just a charming gift but an opportunity.
Valentines were common in Victorian-era England at the time and were just beginning to become popular in America (though they were rather expensive).
In 1846, for example, some 30,000 valentines passed through the New York City postal service on Valentine’s Day. Writing to her cousin in a letter dated February 14, 1849, the American poet Emily Dickinson wrote about the valentine fever in New England.
The last week has been a merry one in Amherst, & notes have flown around like, snowflakes. Ancient gentlemen, & spinsters, forgetting time, & multitude of years, have doffed their wrinkles—in exchange for smiles—even this aged world of our's, has thrown away it's staff—and spectacles, & now declares it will be young again.
Valentine's sun is setting now however, & before tomorrow eve, old things will take their place again.
By the time Dickinson wrote her letter, Howland’s valentine operation was already underway.
Shortly after receiving her valentine, she began importing from England paper, lace, paste, and other materials to make her own. She designed several samples, which she gave to her brother, who took them with him during his next sales trip on behalf of the family store.
Hoping for a couple hundred dollars of business, Esther Howland was stunned when her brother returned with $5,000 worth of orders ($150,000 in today’s dollars).
Sensing she was on to something, Howland opened an office in a guest room of the family’s Summer Street residence. She began employing friends, utilizing assembly-line style production.
An artist-aristocrat who “drove high-stepping horses” but was also into the latest fashions, Howland would design the cards herself, then instruct her employees—all women—on how each card should be crafted, using an array of trimmings: lace, colored paper, “wafers,” cut-out flowers, and other items. These innovations made the cards superior to the commercial valentines of the day, which were often cheap, crude, comical, and even vulgar.
According to Howland, her employees were compensated “liberally,” and the work was “light and pleasant.” While some historians are skeptical of this claim, in her book Greetings With Love: The Book of Valentines, Michele Karl says Howland was among the "first employers to pay women a decent wage." (Wages, of course, are closely tied to productivity.)
Through her production process, Howland was able to bring valentines to the masses, selling them for as little as five cents.
What’s clear is that Howland employed a large female workforce that continued to grow as orders increased. Her operation expanded to larger quarters on the third floor of the Howland residence. A century and a half before working from home was a thing, Howland was even employing women in their homes. She’d drop off boxes of supplies and designs and then have a courier pick up finished valentines the following week, which Howland would personally inspect. (Sort of a 19th-century version of gig work for stay-at-home moms.)
Howland’s operation soon became a huge commercial success. Numerous accounts show she was soon making more than $100,000 annually ($2-$3 million in today’s money, depending on the year).
Howland’s success stemmed from a combination of business savvy and creativity. Her cards, which tapped into the romanticism of the era, were lovely and elaborate. Many featured moving pieces, pop-ups, and three-dimensional effects—accordion paper, mechanical flowers, and slides that revealed poems and odes of love and affection.
Prior to Howland, valentines were still mostly a luxury item available to wealthier Americans in mid-19th-century America, but through her production process, Howland was able to bring them to the masses, selling them for as little as five cents. (High-end valentines of the day sold for as much as $50.)
She made herself wealthy and employed and empowered untold numbers of women.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War, Howland suffered a severe leg injury that confined her to a wheelchair. Nevertheless, she continued to run her business until 1880, when she sold the operation to Whitney Company to attend to her dying father. (The sale made Whitney Company the largest producer of valentines in the world.)
Howland died in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1904 at age 75, eight months after a fall that left her bedridden.
Howland is today remembered as the “Mother of the American Valentine,” and it’s no wonder why.
The same way Henry Ford brought automobiles to the masses by offering a superior product—the Model T—at a lower cost, Howland brought Americans with little means beautiful, handcrafted valentines they could share with loved ones.
In the process, she made herself wealthy and employed and empowered untold numbers of women.
Perhaps most importantly—at least for those who cherish Valentine’s Day—through creativity and specialization, Howland allowed countless numbers of people to express their love and affection to those closest to them in a way they could not possibly do themselves.
For this alone, Howland deserves a place in the pantheon of entrepreneurs who made our world a more lovely—and loving—place.