Jan 10, 2012

The Mother of the American Valentine

by Susan Borgen (tparty)

Esther Allen Howland is known as the mother of the American valentine. While she was not the first to create this type of greeting card in U.S., she is credited with having popularized the intricate, multi-layered lace valentine, and propelling it into a major industry.

Esther was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1828. After her graduation from Mount Holyoke College in 1847, she was inspired by the fancy lace-covered English valentines that her father sold in his store and decided to make some of her own.

Using what she knew from the family's business (her father operated the largest book and stationery story in Worcester), and her own considerable artistic ability, she began by importing paper lace and floral decorations from England. Then she went to work with paste and paint and created an array of valentines. One of her brothers was skilled in penmanship and she persuaded him to inscribe sentiments on the cards. Another brother was a salesman for the family business. He agreed to try to get orders for the next season's trade, so she gave him a dozen samples which he added to the inventory for his next sales trip.

Esther's valentines proved more popular than she could have imagined, for her brother returned with an astonishing $5,000 in orders. Undaunted by the size of the task before her, Esther recruited several friends and established a revolutionary all-female assembly line to help her fulfill the orders.

Her creations were an instant hit. Despite their high price tag — many at $5 to $10 each, and some truly extravagant ones, bedecked with ribbons, satin, and silk, which cost up to $30 — the business boomed, yielding more than $100,000 annually. After over thirty years, she sold her business to the George C. Whitney Company in 1881, and retired to take care of her aging father. Esther died in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1904.

While other manufacturers competed for the affection of the public, none could compete with the quality, taste, and style of Esther Howland. She was a visionary who had a lasting impact upon valentine history.

As Valentine's Day approaches, here is a sampling of vintage valentines offered for sale by members of the Etsy Vintage Team...

1932 Butterfly Fairy Valentine by tparty
Victorian 3-D Embossed Valentine by VintageJunkInMyTrunk
Vintage Norcross Valentine's Day Card for Sister by CalloohCallay
1915 Valentine Postcard by TheOldBarnDoor


cherrylippedroses said...

...absolutely wonderful researched story...I can not get over that some of those Valentines cost $30.00...thank you so much for the article!

Bevy said...

Thanks for posting this story...I had no idea! She certainly made some beautiful Valentines.

blondie blu said...

Never knew about Esther… her creations were stunning! Thanks for the interesting post. :-) Helena

France Geek said...

She would have done awesome on Handmade Etsy. Wow - the prices the cards fetched are a testimony to what they were. Fantastic story.

Callooh Callay said...

I love this bit of history--and she looks like such a dour old girl for making such frilly cards!

Thanks for featuring one of mine.

wonderdiva said...

I was thinking the same thing as Callooh Callay -- she must have had a fanciful side under that serious exterior!

I love vintage Valentines so much, they are beautiful little works of art. Loved the story!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting stories, and the cards are such sweet eye candy!

Sarah ~ Magnolia's Attic said...

She really doesn't look like a ribbons and lace kind of gal, does she?!! Such an interesting piece of history -- thanks for bringing it to us.
The valentines shown are lovely!

Cassie's Tale said...

What a great Valentine's history lesson! Well-researched and interesting, and some great items from team members ...thank you for sharing!

Nora-transient*treasures said...

Thanks so much for the great post! What a combination of artist and entrepreneur Esther was.