Esther Howland

Mother of the American Valentine

It is truly amazing that this one woman could have had such a lasting impact upon the millions of Valentines sent annually in this country. This is the story of one "visionary", whose talent, imagination, dedication, and perseverance created a fascinating industry, and whom the Greeting Card Association has honored with the creation of the annual Esther Howland Award.

The Howland Family, with prestigious lineage as far back as the Pilgrim fathers, operated the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts. As an impressionable young student at The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Class of 1847, and a contemporary of the young poet Emily Dickinson, Esther had been exposed to the annual Valentine festivities, which were later banned by the college for being too frivolous! After graduating at the age of nineteen, she received an elaborate English Valentine from one of her fathers' business associates, and was confident that she was capable of making similar - even better ones. She convinced her father to order lace paper and other supplies from England and New York City and, with characteristic determination, made a dozen samples, which her brother added to his inventory for his next sales trip. Secretly hoping for as much as $200 In orders, they were stunned when her brother returned with more than $5000 in advance sales - more than she could hope to make herself. Recruiting friends and creating her now-famous assembly line, her business was born. Advertising and word-of-mouth, based on a beautiful product and a wide range of prices, led to a $100,000. per year business, and assured this ingenious woman a place in history. Her valentines were known from Maine to California, and today's collectors can often recognize them by their characteristic refinement and detail.

Designing and creating these memorable missives required artistry and inspiration, as well as a touch of magic. The finished products evoked fantasy and romance, and set a trend for more than thirty years. While other manufacturers competed for the affection of the public, none could compete with the quality, taste, and style of Esther Howland. While she was not the first to create Valentines in America, she is credited with having popularized the lace Valentine, and propelling it into a major industry. The accolade, "The Mother of the American Valentine" - first used in a newspaper article shortly after her death - places her deep within the heart of each of us, for Valentine's Day has become an integral aspect of our culture.

The business thrived despite her semi-retirement in 1866 and a recurrent knee injury forced her to conduct her operations from a wheelchair for the next fifteen years. Finally, in 1881, morally compelled to care for her ailing father, she sold her business to an associate, George Whitney, whose company patterned many of their cards on the Howland model. She died in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1904 - never having married, but certainly having vicariously lived a magical love story.

This totally modern woman, who dared to establish a formidable business at a time when women were not encouraged to assert themselves outside the home, has had a profound effect on all of us. From the elementary school "Valentine Box" and the millions of dollars in greeting cards marketed annually - to say nothing of the financial impact on our postal system - the popularization of the holiday is indebted largely to Esther Howland's business acumen! Her contribution to the sending of Valentine cards cannot be over-emphasized.

Esther Howland's vision captured the imagination of the public, and translated the fantasies of their dreams into treasured mementos. Her cards became hallmarks of cherished relationships and unspoken words signifying love and beauty, romance and even proposals of marriage. They became treasures to be kept forever. They became the incredible heritage of a woman who changed the way LOVE is celebrated in America.

Esther Howland Exhibit - prepared for The Greeting Card Association in honor of the presentation of the first "Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary" the National Stationery Show, the Jacob Javits Convention Center, New York City, May 20-23, 2001. These labels described different aspects of the Esther Howland exhibit and antique Valentines from The Nancy Rosin Collection. While the items are not shown here, the descriptions are a valuable addition to the subject, and helpful to anyone with a passion for the subject!

1. Esther Howland's creations fueled everyones' fantasies of the romantic and sentimental, and provided a vehicle for Cupids' triumph in all strata of society. From small, inexpensive missives, starting at five cents, to the elaborate, multi-layered confections which cost as much as fifty dollars, there was something for everyone. Before long, this fledgling business was the major producer of lace-paper Valentines in America, and the popularity of the holiday had spread from coast to coast. Custom dictated that this was an opportunity for women to also send greetings on St. Valentine's Day, and the challenge was to try to discover the anonymous sender! They might be slipped under the door, tied to the doorknob or delivered by the postman. Transported great distances by courier, horsedrawn coach, and eventually by railroad, the delicate treasures were lovingly sent, and are still cherished as important touchstones to the past. They are a tangible connection to real people - like us - who lived and loved more than a century ago!

2. As the popularity of the Valentine increased, so did competition in the marketplace. Embossers and lace-paper makers had been inserting their names within the dies, and now the "assemblers" reflected their pride by adding identifying marks to the reverse of most cards. We recognize the early Howland sticker with a red "H", a printed red "H", and the embossed "NEV Co", reflecting the name of her New England Valentine Company; each is representative of different periods in the history of her business. Collectors find fascination in locating these elusive pieces, through which history comes alive.

3. The ultimate Valentine creations are these attributed to the atelier of Esther Howland. Inspired by the English marvels, which reached their peak in the years 1840 to 1860, she added several unique features, thereby creating characteristic pieces with a flair and elegance that had not been seen before. When one considers that the cost of an elaborate card for Valentines Day or May Day might equal the cost of purchasing a horse and buggy, it is put into a fascinating perspective!

4. Several design innovations are attributed to this talented woman with a creative eye, which set her unique product apart from the competition. Multiple layers, hinged or lift-up flaps, accordion springs, die-cuts or Baxter prints, and heavily embossed flowers - often overlaid for impact - were applied variously to the designs. The folded paper springs enabled the separate layers to rise up, creating a dramatic shadow-box effect. Colored paper wafers set beneath different sections of the lace enhanced the patterns to make them even more visually appealing. Preferring that the sentiment be saved for the more personal interior of the card, she developed separate "Mottos" which could be pasted inside. She even provided dealers with booklets containing 131 different verses, so a customer could select a new one to replace one that did not reflect the senders' exact intention. Esther Howland was not only a visionary, but she was an astute businesswoman and an exemplary entrepreneur!

5. Esther Howland is shown here, as well as her parents - reflected in youthful paintings which are on display at Old Sturbridge Village, MA. In others, we see views of the family home at 16 Summer Street, Worcester, and her father, beside her in the one horse shay. The large room beneath the mansard roof was the workshop and center for her incredible fabrications. Contemporary photographs provide a refreshing look at this woman who had such a profound influence on our social heritage. Esther Howland cast a striking image in Worcester, as well as in New York City, where the daring young woman is said to have ventured alone to purchase business supplies - one hundred fifty years ago! She was described as having "an abundance of glossy chestnut hair, vibrant eyes, a high complexion, and exquisite dress". Her clothes, jewelry, and characteristically elegant bonnet are shown in this photograph, taken about 1865, when Esther Howland was 37 years old. Her independent nature was cultivated at The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary - at the same time that the young poet Emily Dickinson was a classmate. Her business acumen was developed by her proximity to her family's highly successful book and stationery business in Worcester.

6. Long before Henry Ford, Esther Howland established her all-female assembly line factory! Eager friends were set at a long table - beneath the skylight on the top floor - where they passed the paper fantasies along - each person adding their personal touch with paste pot and delicate hand - until the completed Valentine reached Miss Howland's keen eye for final inspection. Additionally, in a cottage industry technique, boxes of supplies, topped with a sample to be used as a template, were distributed to ladies at their homes in the outlying areas. A week later, her coachman would drive out and collect the finished product. Faced with monumental orders, Esther Howland realized that it was more than she was capable of completing for several years; she had, nevertheless, devised two ways to make supply meet demand.

7. The thrust to improve childhood education was fueled by Friedrich Froebel's Kindergarten movement, as well as by Louis Prang's commitment to art education in the public schools. Esther Howland's Japanese Puzzle, a pocket-sized mosaic, or parquetry puzzle, capitalized on the popularity of this phenomenon. The gift box, decorated with a scrap and Dresden gold-paper trim, provided an interesting adjunct to her Valentine sales!

8. The magical ingredients, which Esther Howland incorporated into her collages, were new and fascinating to her customers. Imported pictures, die-cut flowers, Dresden gilt paper trimmings, and fancy little scraps were ornaments that drew their curiosity. New and beautiful, they were applied to wondrous lace paper -- her canvas for the glorious magic that she tastefully wove! Using the Language of Flowers, a tiny rose or pansy or forget-me-not could add an unspoken message, which she artistically combined with hearts, quivers and arrows, love birds, wreaths or endless knots of love. She preferred to have the personal written sentiment inside, yet the decorative emblems all spoke one thought: love and romance.

9. The manufacture of cameo-embossed lace paper reached a crescendo in England in the first half of the 19th century. Competitive companies provided designs with cherubs, couples, the church - bastion of holy matrimony and wedded bliss, romantic imagery inspired by poetry and nature, and borders reminiscent of handmade lace. The volume was incredible, and hundreds of thousands of romantics sent them passionately. The packages of lace, which Esther Howland imported, were used in a fashion similar to that of the English, but with her characteristic flair. Overflowing baskets, sentimental bouquets, and regal ribbons trimmed with golden stars were some of her symbolic trimmings. Frequently multiple layers - as many as five or six - would open to gradually reveal yet another page of wonderful artistry. Sometimes, the ardent lover would lift flaps, open hidden doors, and eventually discover an envelope in which there would be a secret love message - or a place for a lock of hair, or a wedding ring! Such were the fantasies of Miss Esther Howland's Valentines, and obviously one of the secrets to their appeal!

The Evolution of the Valentine

From the earliest tokens of affection - perhaps a feather, a flower, or a fern frond - we have chosen to honor our beloved with a cherished emblem. Selected with love and respect, and meant to reflect the most sensitive emotion, these objects have evolved over the centuries. Handmade devotionals, delicately cut in parchment, and tenderly created in convents in France, Germany, and Holland since the 16th century, are the precursors of the modern Valentine, in the purest sense. As the paper industry evolved, and decorative paper became available in the 18th century, it became the vehicle for sentimental poetry, the canvas for elegant calligraphy, and cherished friendship greetings could be beautifully created and saved for posterity. The paper Valentine, commemorating February 14th, the date of the martyrdom of the patron of lovers, Saint Valentine, in 276 A.D. , was catapulted into its great popularity by the combination of two factors: the availability of paper, and a universal postal system. Until that time, a "Valentine" referred to the chosen "person" and the gift was frequently jewelry, lingerie, or gloves.

The overwhelming success of the English cameo-embossing and lace paper industry enabled the magic of delicacy and exquisite beauty to be combined in a manner yet to be reproduced. They reached their apex in the period of 1840 to 1860, with the achievement of magnificent and elaborate motifs and their incredibly elegant embellishments. Many designs were adaptations of earlier Austrian techniques: silk chiffon insert panels encrusted with flowers, jewels, and scraps, intricately cut beehives that lifted open when a silken cord was gently elevated, and flaps that opened to reveal hidden messages or images. A receptive public found the images tantalizing, and price often had little to do with acquiring them!

In America, Valentines were largely handcrafted and the influence of the immigrant German cultures resulted in the wonderful folk-art paper items known as scherenschnitte, paper cutting, and fraktur, paper designs incorporating the German writing and imagery. Paper was scarce and costly, and free time to create special missives was also limited because of the responsibilities of work and school. The handmade love-tokens reflected the beauty and tenderness of personal communication, from the most primitive woven paper hearts and hands to the most elegant penmanship.

American manufacturers provided wood engraved or lithographic Valentines, both sentimental and comic, as early as the 1830s. Elaborate European missives were occasionally imported, but prohibitively expensive and unavailable to the general public. When Esther Howland launched her dynamic enterprise, she found a vast market, receptive and eager to purchase her cards. Competition existed, but Esther Howland reigned as the person who made lace Valentines into a positive commercial venture.

As the Industrial Revolution changed manufacturing, it also changed lifestyles. Time became the most important factor, and mass-production, which could create more, cheaper, faster - also made them less appealing. The rapid pace left less time for hand-finished details. Machine-made cards were different, but many were lovely in their own, more modern way. Chromolithography led the path to album-sized cards, postal cards, and die-cut fabrications of every popular theme, from children and romantic couples, to automobiles, ships, sewing machines, and even dirigibles! Their beauty was appreciated, and the popularity of Valentines persisted, yet the delicate fantasies, elaborate layered effects, water-colored posies, and delightful details of Esther Howland were only treasured memories. By 1881, when she sold her business to George Whitney, society's pace was already entering a modern era.