America’s Mother of Valentines: Ester Howland

By Bridgette

Lover’s Traditions in America:


Esther Howland (1828-1904)

Did you know that the American valentine was born through the creativity, inspiration,  and ingenuity of  Esther Allen Howland who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1828?   She was both an American artist, writer,  and printer.   As an enterprising young woman,  she was among the first to publish and sell valentines in the United States.

At 19,  Esther who was a recent  graduate from Mount Holyoke College in 1847, was sent  very ornate English valentine from a business friend of her father.   She was so fascinated and  intrigued by the valentine that she wanted to make some of them herself.  She believed she could design them and that they would be better and prettier than the one she received.   With the help of her father, who owned a large book and stationery store in Worcester, MA, she began ordering  and  importing paper lace and  floral decorations from vendors in England.

After receiving the supplies,  she began designing  and  making samples of her cards.   The  fancy valentines were made with real lace, paper lace, flowers,  and ribbons.   With her designs completed, she asked her brother to help sell them on his sales trips for his father’s store.    She wasn’t expecting him to sell very many initially.  What a surprise when he returned with advance valentine orders for $5,000!

Her card creations were an instant hit.   Despite their high cost — many of the cards sold for $5 to $10 each, and some truly extravagant ones, bedecked with ribbons, satin, and silk, cost up to $30 — the business boomed.

Esther Allen Howland's Valentine Design

The demand for her designs  was greater than she dreamed and exceeded the number she could make by herself.   To meet the orders, she hired friends to help.   Her first advertisement appeared in a Worcester paper, The Daily Spy, on Feb. 5, 1850.

The card business flourished despite her semi-retirement in 1866.   She functioned from a wheelchair for the next 15 years due to a  recurring knee injury.

Business grew rapidly and in 1879,   The New England Valentine Company was born.    She rented a building and moved the business.   She published 31 pages of verse in a small book called The New England Valentine Co.’s Verse Book for 1879, and this book allowed a customer to choose the verse for the card.  Her lacy valentines became renowned throughout the United States.   She is credited with several innovations in valentine design.  One was the brightly colored wafer of paper placed to give contrast under the white paper lace; another was the built-up shadow box that became popular in the latter part of her career. 

The production and assembly line valentine card business that began in her home eventually led to a thriving business grossing $100,000 annually. In 1881,  thirty-one years later,  Esther retired to care for her father.   She sold her thriving business to the George C. Whitney Company that  patterned many of their cards in her famous style.

Unfortunately, Esther  never married.   Joan P.  Kerr wrote, that ” she has been remembered as a “woman with high color and glossy chestnut hair,” one who “drove high-stepping horses and looked like an aristocrat. ” “Striking in appearance, she dressed in fashion and had facials,” recalled the daughter of one of Esther’s friends, adding that “not many had them in those days.”  A younger picture of her is unavailable and the one shown is of her in her fifties that doesn’t do her justice.

In 1904,  Esther died in Quincy, Massachusetts.   After her death she was honored by being called “The Mother of the American Valentine.”

We know there had to be great satisfaction in  producing, designing,  and expressing personal sentiments  for others.  Esther’s own joy,  happiness, and love were expressed through her cards.    She was a  gift that also gave her gifts away.   That marvelous Valentine card tradition lives on  in the U.S.  in great part because  of her enterprising spirit, dedication, and good old American ingenuity.

The origin of Valentine’s Day is disputed by many experts.  Some say it originated from St. Valentine, a Roman,  who was martyred for refusing to give up Christianity. He died on February 14, 269 A.D.    Legend also says that while in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl — who may have been his jailer’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement.   It is said  that St. Valentine left a farewell note for her  and signed it “From Your Valentine”.

There is another  story that says under the rule of Emperor Claudius II, Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns.   Claudius the Cruel was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military.  He believed that the reason Roman men wouldn’t join was because they did not want to leave their loves or families.   As a result, Claudius canceled all engagements and marriages  in Rome.

Saint Valentine was a priest in Rome at this time.  Realizing the injustice of the decree, both Valentine and Saint Marius aided the Christian martyrs by secretly marrying couples.  When Valentine’s actions were discovered,  he was apprehended and dragged before the Prefect of Rome. For his defiance, they condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs, and be decapitated.   Saint Valentine  suffered martyrdom on the 14th day of February about  270 A.D.

Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, when lovers said or sang their Valentines.  Over time,  February 14th  has become the date for exchanging love messages of all kinds,  and it is a celebration of  St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers. On this day poems, cards,  flowers,  candy and simple gifts are sent to secret loves and loved ones. 

It is astounding to learn that valentine traditions have been on going since the Middle Ages and celebrated throughout the world.  In our own country,  isn’t it amazing that one woman has had  such an impact upon the millions of Valentines sent annually?

View Esther’s card designs for Valentines and other occasions at the online museum where there are over 900 vintage cards displayed. It is interesting to see how cards have evolved over the years.

Read more: The Amourous Art of Ester Howland by Joan P. Kerr


We Wish You a Loving Valentine’s Day!


6 responses to “America’s Mother of Valentines: Ester Howland

  1. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Kiss. Kiss. 🙂

    About St. Valentine:

  2. Happy Valentine’s Day !
    I kind of hate to mention this, but that photo of her looks a smidge like Rosie O’D. OIKs! No insult intended.

    Anyway, I LOVE those old cards, I think they are splendid. My grandmother in law (may she rest in peace), saved a bunch of very similar ornate cards that her husband had given her. They are around here somewhere. I happened to think of them yesterday, but didn’t look around for them. Been living here for seven years and STILL not organized.

    I had a fab Valentine’s celebration.
    My hubby and I hit on the secret of success a few years ago out of frustration and annoyance with the local restaurants. You see, I had made a reservation at a very nice place, and made it early to avoid the crowds.
    We arrived, and waited around in an empty restaurant for the hostess. She finally showed up and took us to our table…….which happened to be smashed up against the tables on either side of it. They had ADDED more tables to the floor to handle the expected turnout.
    We were handed a special “Valentine’s menu”…….yeah, you all know what I am talking about. It had only half of the usual items, and those were at twice the regular prices.
    I insisted we leave – it was an insult as far as I was concerned.

    So, what we do now is so much more romantic.
    We order takeaway from our favorite restaurant a day or two BEFORE Valentine’s Day, and have our celebration a day or two early.

    I set the table with all the china and “gold” flatware, crystal and candles, flowers, and chilled Champagne.
    While hubby goes out to pick up our normal sized portions from the regular full sized menu and at the REGULAR prices, I put on some lovely music, a nice outfit, and uncork the wine.
    This little trick has never failed to result in the most relaxed and romantic of Valentine’s celebrations.
    We have superior wine at nowhere near the inflated cost, no crowds, no waiting on the waiter for anything, fine china and decent crystal, perfect music played at a perfect volume, no parking woes, no tipping……….it’s heaven.

    We really have a chance to reconnect and enjoy the spirit of Valentine’s Day. Even if it is a little early :).

    • Happy Valentine’s Day to Everyone! Hugs to all!

      Lady, it sounds like you had a magnificent Valentine’s night! Great idea for others too!

      I love those old cards too. My mother saved all of the cards that we children gave her, and I do mean all. I went through the boxes of them when she passed away. I separated all of them and put them into bags for each of the six kids. That was 60 years of cards. My how they changed as did the little sentiments inside. My brothers found it amusing to see them too. The “I Love you Mommy’s” in their childhood script, and the cards they chose at the time were heartwarming. (I have saved all of my kids cards to me too. It is fun to go through them every once in awhile.).

      My one great grandma cut out some of the fronts of special occasion cards and pasted them into her bible. Those were Dutch cards and very different..from the 1850’s. She cut out flowers or bouquets from cards and put them next to obits or births. So we know the cards were very special to her.

  3. There is still time my friends…give your obot sweetheart/ lover a gift to remember! The hiss sounds like SSSSssssssssss!

    The webpage from The Bronx Zoo in NYC has the answer for your quirky self. Give her/him a hissing Madagascar Cockroach!

    Last Minute Valentines Gift! Hissing Madagascar Cockroaches!

    “Flowers wilt. Chocolates melt. Roaches are forever.”

  4. OK, LOL – not my style!

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