No doubt about it, Victorian valentines are pretty to look at. But these cards weren’t mere frippery – they were big business.
At the center of the Victorian valentine industry was Esther Howland, the so-called mother of the American valentine.
Esther was born in 1828 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father owned a stationary store. This proximity to paper sparked Esther’s wildly successful business idea. Legend has it that on an otherwise unremarkable day in 1849, Esther was asked to stock some frilly English valentines that her father had imported. She reportedly thought that “it would be no great task to make even prettier ones…”. So she began to do just that.
In every version of the story, Esther used scrap paper to make her first valentines. And in every version of the story, her valentines were met with immediate, uproarious success.
Esther popularized her own English-style valentines. These cards were different than their current-day grocery-story brethren. There was not an animated character or a bad pun to be seen. Instead English valentines had lots of lace, brightly-colored paper, and three-dimensional heft. Texture was particularly important, as embossed paper and layered designs were popular. Esther reinvented these pretty artifacts, branding each with small red “H.”
Esther’s valentines weren’t just pretty — they represented a hard-core business operation. Esther started her business in 1849, at just over 20 years old. According to professor Barry Shank, “Howland found a way to convey complexity and layering using colors and textures that could be assembled by relatively unskilled manual laborers, almost all of whom were women.” Howland did grow her business to employ dozens of women, turning thousands of dollars of profit each year. Some accounts peg her business income at $100,000 annually. It may have been Esther, not Ford, who invented the production line.
Using a production line was not Esther’s only business innovation. She made a point of creating cards for all budgets, from a simple 5-cent card to complex lace ring-boxes that sold for $50 or more. She provided vendors with over a hundred verses that could be inserted into the cards for a more personal feel. She even was an early advocate of DIY, as she sold valentine kits for women who wanted to assemble the pieces at home.
Esther continued to run her successful business from 1849 until 1881, when she sold the company to George C. Whitney. This company became one of the largest greeting card companies in the world.
Esther Howland was a woman with remarkable business acumen. She was able to use the images of domesticity and female prettiness to expand her paper empire. This is what strikes me as a central image to focus her story upon, then: the combination of frills and frippery with the sharp-as-steel business mind underneath.
Featured Image from Wikipedia, originally sourced from http://www.americanantiquarian.org/. CC license, no changes made.
- Julia Carpenter, Washington Post
- New England Historical Society
- America Comes Alive: Esther Howland (1828-1904), First in America to Mass Produce Valentines.
- Shank, Barry. A token of my affection: Greeting cards and American business culture. Columbia University Press, 2004. Amazon
 Shank, Barry. A token of my affection: Greeting cards and American business culture. Columbia University Press, 2004. p. 60
 Shank, Barry. p. 276