February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
The captivating examples of romantic nineteenth-century valentines on these pages are the handiwork of a lady unusual for her time. Esther Howland was born in 1828 in Worcester, Massachusetts, to Southworth A. Howland, a descendant of one of the Pilgrim fathers who was a prosperous stationer and bookseller. In 1845 she entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, which had opened its doors only eight years earlier. She studied English grammar, ancient geography, and ancient and modern history, for which her father paid sixty dollars a year exclusive of fuel and lights. It was well worth it. For after Esther graduated with forty-three other young ladies in 1847, she embarked on a business venture that eventually achieved sales of over one hundred thousand dollars annually.
It is too bad that no picture exists of Esther at that time, rather than the one above taken in her fifties, for 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.”
Esther also had taste, intelligence, and drive. When her father imported some lacy valentines from England to sell in his store, she greatly admired them but thought she could make even prettier ones. The results were good enough for her brother to take some samples along on a selling trip to see if he could drum up some orders for her. He was so successful that Esther immediately had to employ four or five girls to come each day to her house to help her make them. She soon hit upon the assembly-line approach, as in the engraving below, with each girl assigned to a specific task in a manufacturing process that involved imported lace paper, sheets of colored pictures, all manner of trimmings, and colored paper “wafers” to slide under the lace to heighten the effect.
The valentines were beautiful—and successful. The work force kept increasing and had to move to larger quarters on the Howland’s third floor. Esther reigned as the queen of the sentimental lace-type valentine and constantly sought to embellish it. Among her ingenious innovations are the “lift-up” design, which combined several layers of lace paper to give a sense of depth to the central picture, and the use of small pieces of folded paper that acted like an accordion pleat, lifting up the lace from the main body of the valentine and holding it there. This growing cottage industry of amorous art touched a responsive chord in nineteenth-century Americans and became increasingly popular amid the comic and vulgar valentines then in vogue. Esther even published a book of verse for her customers, explaining: “It is frequently the case that a valentine is found to suit, but the verse or sentiment is not right. In a case like this, the book is given them, and one is selected, cut out, and pasted over, making it satisfactory.” A typical Howland effort reads: “May friendship’s constant kiss be thine/From this sweet day of valentine.”
In 1880, Esther sold out to the George C. Whitney Company, also of Worcester, which became the largest valentine factory in the world. She lived until 1904—unmarried, but secure in the knowledge that for more than a quarter of a century her delicate valentines encouraged and delighted countless lovers.
AMERICAN HERITAGE is indebted to the Hallmark Historical Collection of Hallmark Cards, Inc., for these samples of Esther Howland’s art.