A Woman to Know: Esther Howland

You say my heart, my too fond heart, is cold my dear, to you. — Esther

(image from the Mount Holyoke collection)

You know what the cynics say: that Valentine’s Day is a holiday invented by greeting card makers and candy companies; that it’s a celebration for romantic comedies and newlyweds only.

Or maybe, it’s a celebration of one woman’s creative genius.

Esther Howland, the so-called mother of the American valentine, grew up in Worcester, Mass., in the 19th century. She became an informal apprentice in her father’s stationery store, where she combed through mail. When a notecard arrived from England, decorated in Victorian-style lace and ornamentation, it sparked the idea for what became her wildly successful business venture. With innovations in paper design and card messaging, Howland’s valentine sales generated more than $100,000 in yearly revenue, sustaining her business for decades, according to the American Antiquarian Society.

The money was literally on the doily covered table. After starting her valentine business in 1849 — and hiring an all-female staff to cut lace, trim hearts and stencil flowers — Howland was soon turning out thousands of valentines to meet demand. She later incorporated her business, sold it for a profit to George C. Whitney and made a name for herself among the few female entrepreneurs at the time. And Esther was immune to her own (mass-manufactured) V-Day sentiment — she remained single all her life.

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