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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The "Mother" of Valentines


Did you know that . . .
Esther Howland

The "Mother of American Valentines" was a pioneering New England businesswoman who, while she helped many others profess their romantic feelings, was never married. 

Esther Howland (1828–1904) popularized Valentine’s Day greeting cards in America. Valentines had been available in the U.S. for 50 years, but she was the first to commercialize them (cards in this post are "Internet copies" of her creations). But, this was the only online image available of Ms. Howland. She was described as having "an abundance of glossy chestnut hair, vibrant eyes, a high complexion, and exquisite dress." This photograph was taken in 1865 when she was 37. 

After graduating from Mount Holyoke Women's Seminary in 1847 she worked in her father’s business, S.A. Howland & Sons, the largest book and stationery store, in Worcester, MA. A vendor sent her an English valentine which included lace and cut-out flower decorations. It was much more impressive than American cards. Howland was sure that she could make a better card, and knew that the key was fancy paper. She asked her stationer father to import embossed and perforated lacy paper. In 1849, she made 12 sample valentines that her brother added to the inventory on his next sales trip. She hoped to get $200 in orders, and was overwhelmed when he returned with $5,000 in fancy valentine orders.

Determined to meet the demand, Howland recruited a group of all-female friends to work as "assemblers” and set up an assembly line of card makers in a third floor bedroom at her parents’ home (pre-dating Henry Ford’s assembly line by 50 years). She also distributed boxes of supplies with one finished sample as a guide to women who preferred to assemble valentines in their own homes, thus setting up an early cottage industry.

Early cards contained short four-line verses pasted inside similar to earlier English valentines. This set-up would eventually become standard for the valentine market.

In 1870, she incorporated as the New England Valentine Company and continued the home-based business until 1879 when it was moved to a rented building in downtown Worcester MAHowland cards had an ‘H’ on the back in red ink with the price and letters "N.E.V. Co"  to distinguish them from rivals. 

Many of her innovations are still in use, such as the "lift-up" valentine which consists of several paper-lace motifs built upon one another in layers. Howland also introduced the layering of lace, thin-colored paper, 3-dimensional accordion effects, a bouquet in which flowers move to reveal a verse when pulled by a string, and the built-up shadow box that became popular in the latter part of her career.

Anticipating that customers might want to personalize cards they bought, she provided vendors with a 31-page book of different verses that could be inserted in most cards. Customers could choose from 131 verses printed in red, green, blue, and gold ink in three different sizes. The selected verse could be pasted over the original card verse.

Cards were offered for various budgets. A simple card sold for five cents. A card trimmed with ribbons or featuring intricate illustrations was much more, upwards of $50 (equal to the cost of a horse drawn buggy then). Very elaborate cards were highly decorated and had inner envelopes for insertion of a secret love message, lock of hair or even a ring. 

Howland cards were shipped countrywide and the business grossed over $100,000 per year, considerable for the time. She sold the business in 1881 to care for her ailing father.

The popularity of Valentine’s Day cards owes much to Esther Howland who popularized the lace valentine and made it into a major industry. Her creations of fantasy and romance have set a trend for more than 30 years. In 2001, the Greeting Card Association established the Esther Howland Award  given annually to a “greeting card visionary.”

According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion cards are sent annually making Feb. 14 the second largest card-sending holiday of the year after Christmas when an estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent. Over 50 percent of all Valentine's Day cards are purchased in the six days prior to the holiday. Woman purchase about 85 percent of all valentines. Teachers receive the most valentines, then children, mothers, wives, sweethearts and pets.

My personal opinion is that a Valentine's Day card 💌 should be held to be most appreciated (an e-valentine doesn't do it for me). That's why Grenville and I will be exchanging several many cards today and a couple of sweet treats and watching our first-date film, French Kiss (1995)How about your plans?

Happy ❤️ Hearts Day to Everyone

17 comments:

Valerie said...

Yes, happy St Valentines Day.I did't realise it was Valentines Day until reading a few posts. No need, I guess.

mamasmercantile said...

I learnt a lot here today, they were certainly beautiful cards.

coffeeontheporchwithme said...

Very interesting! She was ahead of her time! -Jenn

JP A Quiet Corner said...

So, all this fuss is HER fault!!!...:)JP

Sandra said...

I much rather have an ecard that a card, no valentines here, but this is interesting, 5000 in cards back then was really a wow number. my mother was a card freak and got cards for any and all occasions. daddy and i always made fun of her because we were the non card people in her life. i think the last valentine i sent was the year she died. i always made sure she got one even though i thought it was silly, she did not. i am glad you and your hubby both like to exchange because it is hard for a one loves it and one doesn't. like mother and daddy. interst ing story of the cards

Red said...

Many of the technique she created are still in use today.

Anvilcloud said...

I do a Photoshop card for Sue, and Danica did one for her mother. Sue and JJ did cards by hand.

William Kendall said...

That is a lot of cards bought and given!

Valerie said...

Clever lady. It is many years since I sent/received a Valentine card. I didn't realise it had come round again.

baili said...

Wow what remarkable lady she was!!!
thank you for such informative writing my friend!

these cards look so pretty and charming

on valentine's day hubby bring a rose and chocolate for me and that is all our love day since kids are grown ,earlier we used to have lunch or dinner out.

wishing you both a very happy valentine's day :)

Anonymous said...

Happy Valentine's Day! Aloha from Hawaii.

Connie said...

She was creative and enterprising to make such a success of making cards. My husband took me out to dinner last week for an early Valentine's celebration because he's been out of town on business all of this week.

Pat Ball Morrison said...

nice to see the old fashioned Valentines

Anonymous said...

Wow - Esther was quite the businesswoman! Imagine buying a $50 card back then - I wouldn't even do that, now. We exchange real cards, but I'm not really much of a card person - after I've read them, I'm not quite sure what to do with them and they just kind of hang around the house for a while. I did get a nice box of local chocolates - now those I know what to do with!

Doris said...

I love vintage Valentines! We don't exchange cards.....and I'm the worst card sender ever. Several valentine cards to our grandchildren were late because I didn't get them in the mail in time, sigh. We ate heart shaped pizza that Ellen made and had warm brownies for dessert. It was a lovely! Your plans sound lovely too!

Erika N said...

This is a very interesting post. I am a native of Worcester so it is fascinating to read about someone from my hometown. And I love the idea that she was really a mixed media artist, way back before it became a thing! Hope you had a wonderful valentine's Day and also want to mention I love the pigeon photo of downtown Nashua. Happy weekend. Hugs-Erika

Eggs In My Pocket said...

I did not know this! What a wonderful history post!

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