|By Gayle Manley
In the annals of America’s 19th century history, numerous women are lauded for their significant accomplishments as advocates for social reform (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton) or for their humanitarian efforts (Clara Barton). Their names quickly come to mind and are immediately associated with their contributions. But how many of us remember or recognize the name Esther Howland?
Yet, Howland pioneered the commercial valentine industry in America and greeting card and ephemera collectors honor her as the creator of lacy, romantic Valentine’s Day cards.
Esther Allen Howland was born in Worcester, Mass., in 1828 to Southworth and Esther Howland. Her affluent family, descendants of Pilgrim settlers, built the Worcester area’s leading stationery store and bookbindery. Like poet Emily Dickinson, another famous woman of her time, she attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Mass.
During the years that Howland was growing up, elegant valentine cards with detailed, feminine designs were imported from Europe. In the U.S., the Industrial Revolution had brought new processes which improved lithographs and enabled woodcut valentines (a forerunner of lacy cards). Some American artists and manufacturers of the 1830s also offered comic valentines. Many card givers, who could not afford English or German greeting cards, crafted handmade cards at home.
As the story goes, Victorian-style imported cards were sold through Southworth Howland’s stationery business. Their beauty inspired his daughter and motivated her to begin design and production of sentimental, romantic greeting cards. Sources suggest that her earliest valentine prototypes (1847) were made from cut-up embossed envelopes, embellished by colored pictures, and pasted to plain paper.
It wasn’t an easy road to success, in a Feb. 14, 1848 letter to her brother, Emily Dickenson wrote that Mount Holyoke’s Mistress Lyon had announced to students in the college hall that it was forbidden to send “those foolish notes” called valentines. Undaunted by skepticism, Howland tenaciously pressed ahead with her vision.
By utilizing her father’s business connections, Howland was able to obtain embossed lace blanks, envelopes and colored paper stock from Great Britain. George Snyder, a premier New York lithographer, provided the pictorial art. To test the market for her designs, Esther assembled a dozen or more ornate samples and sent them along to her father’s customers via her salesman-brother Allen. Allen regularly traveled across Massachusetts and into Vermont and New Hampshire by horse and buggy. The family hoped this sales trip would return $200 in valentine card orders. Actually, the overwhelmingly positive reception created an order backlog of $5,000 which enabled Esther to launch a commercial greeting card business.
In 1849, Esther established her card making business at the Howland family home on Summer Street in Worcester. She employed numerous friends and local ladies to clip lace, stencil, die cut and trim hearts. Each lady was given a specialized task, completed it, and then passed the card to the next worker in an assembly line fashion. In 1850, Howland valentines were advertised for the first time in the Worcester, Mass., Daily Spy as “the best assortment in the City.”
Esther was the innovator who could visualize an effect and translate it from functional approach to a finished work of art. For example, she added an underlay of color for contrast behind paper lace and originated dimension techniques such as foldouts, hidden doors, and paper springs to enable card layers to rise. Collectors and greeting card manufacturers recognize Esther as the inventor of the popular “lift-up” valentine style. Beneath its layers were short, endearing messages of love.
Howland maintained rigid quality control over her products. It’s said that she personally inspected every valentine card produced in her workroom. Details mattered. Decorative flowers, hand-painted vines, velvet leaves, cherubs, handholding Victorian couples, and mirror accents conveyed romance and elevated the appeal of Howland’s products. Over time, her designs incorporated embroidered imported silk, fabric lace, satin, foil, and ribbons. Many cards were highlighted with gilt or silver trim.
Esther’s groundbreaking designs and methods influenced other 19th century greeting card firms that followed such as George C. Whitney Company and Jotham & Edward Taft, also of Massachusetts. Through numerous acquisitions of competitors and aided by advancements in machinery, Whitney likely surpassed Howland’s company in overall sales and production volume. Both Whitney and Taft benefitted by adopting many of Esther Howland’s proven techniques. The life’s work of this spirited, creative woman would ultimately reach far beyond her times to inspire and change the greeting card industry.
Today, many collectors and everyday consumers regard Hallmark Cards Inc. as the gold-standard for quality and innovation in greeting cards. The world-renowned firm, founded by J.C. Hall in 1910, also maintains a vast set of historic collections in an effort to document the evolution and transformation of the greeting card industry. Archivist and Historian Samantha Bradbeer noted: “We have more than 150 designs by Esther Howland in our antique card collections, and, as early as the 1950s, Hallmark artists have used her lacy valentines for inspiration and product development.” She added that Esther’s designs “have been occasionally featured in the media and been made available on-view at the Hallmark Visitor’s Center much to the delight of collectors.”
Esther Howland possessed another essential skill for a successful greeting card business: an ability to express sentiment. Her cards did not typically have a catchy slogan or greeting on the front cover. A verse was pasted or printed within the card’s interior. Esther recognized that customers may not like the verse as provided. To meet their needs, she published the New England Valentine Co.’s Valentine Verse Book in 1879. The booklet contained 131 red, green and blue verses in three different designs with which users could replace unsuitable ones. It was furnished to retailers free-of-charge.
When acquiring an antique “Howland” card, look for a red “H” on the card’s reverse or the embossed letters “N.E.V. Co.” (New England Valentine Company). Similarly, competitor George Whitney marked his creations with a red “W.”
Thousands of cards for Valentine’s Day and other holidays were produced by Esther Howland’s company. To source these unique antiques today, seek out reliable antiquarian ephemera dealers, auction houses and private collectors. Prices will vary with age, condition, design elements and construction, materials (e.g. fewer made with hand-painted silk) and other aesthetic factors.
Esther never married and dutifully sold her business in 1880 to care for her ailing father. She died in 1904, leaving a legacy of rich sentiments, beautiful intricately-designed greeting cards, and a mark on Valentine’s Day and the commercial greeting card industry that has endured for more than 150 years.
The following resources may be referenced for additional learning, research, digital archives or current programs.
A History of Valentines, Ruth Webb Lee. 1952, Lee Publications.
Hallmark Visitor’s Center, https://corporate.Hallmark.com Look under the “About” heading for information.
Worcester Historical Museum - Library and Archives, Worcester, Mass. http://www.worcesterhistory.org
American Antiquarian Society, Worcester ,Mass., http://www.americanantiquarian.org Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass., https://mtholyoke.edu