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Esther Howland, Valentine Entrepreneur

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 2/13/2001

Esther Howland, Valentine Entrepreneur Transcript

Esther Howland was the first person to take seriously the business of elaborate handmade valentines. As a teenager, in 1847 she received her first Valentine from England. It had an elaborate border of fine lace paper, and was decorated with ornate flowers which had been cut out, colored and pasted on. In the center was a small pale green envelope, within which was placed a note bordered in red containing sentiments appropriate to Valentine’s Day.

Esther was so excited and pleased that she showed it to all her friends who found it equally charming. Her father was a stationer in Worcester, Massachusetts. He saw how enthusiastically his daughter and her friends responded to the fancy valentine and, being an astute businessman, decided to import some from England and sell them in his store. Esther was fascinated by these elaborate valentines and tried making one, cutting up some embossed valentine envelopes and pasting colored pictures on them. She liked it and made more, eventually creating ten designs. She sent the ten prototypes with her brother, a salesman for the stationery company, when he made his New England rounds and he returned with orders worth over $5000.

At fifty cents each, that amounted to a lot of valentines. Esther ordered the finest embossed and perforated blanks and envelopes from England and went to New York to buy colored pictures, paper lace and ribbon.

Then she set up her business with several friends in a room of the Howland home. According to Ruth Lee, in A History of Valentines, each girl was assigned a special task. One cut out pictures, sorted them and kept them in boxes. Another, made the backgrounds such as trellisses, leaves, simple landscapes, or abstract forms. She passed them to still another who gave them further embellishment, pasting on flowers or attaching silk or satin centers. Another girl carefully glued on little flowers, or painted the silk or satin center with vines or abaresques or attached a small mirror to capture the face of the pretty recipient. Instead of crediting Henry Ford with mass production innovations, it appears the honor should go to Miss Howland as the first with progressive assembly. By the end of 1849 Esther Howland was firmly launched in the valentine business.

As the years passed, the valentine business of Esther Howland flourished. Her valentines were always in good taste and her cards were sent all over the country. Eventually the Howland business was purchased by the Whitney Company and the production of valentines made the transition from handmade to maching produced. Instead of the machine age producing bigger and better materials, the quality declined. By the early 20th century, most valentines consisted of a folded sheet, with one layer of rather coarse lace over the embossed face and the fine paper lace valentines of Esther Howland, with intricate handmade designs had become a thing of the past.

Source: Lee, Ruth Webb, A History of Valentines, New York: Studio Publications, 1952.

Posted in Holidays