Written for American History Magazine (www.thehistorynet.com)
A PRIMEDIA Publication
April 2005 Issue
Cover page, pages 10 (Contributors page) and 62-64 (Article)

This document is stored online so that researchers and the
general public may search for information easily. Please contact Nancy Rosin for nonacademic use.

'Mother of the American Valentine'
by Nancy Rosin

Esther Allen Howland single-handedly changed the way love is celebrated in America. A visionary artist with entrepreneurial flair, she laid the foundations of the modern American valentine industry. Her magnificent hand-assembled valentines captured the imagination of Victorian-era Americans and translated their dreams and fantasies into treasured mementoes that are eagerly sought after by collectors today.

Although sumptuous European valentines were available in mid-19th-century America, their cost and rarity limited the market to a wealthy elite. New York City stationers of the period were producing lithographed valentines in large quantities, but these were hardly comparable to Esther Howland's artistic creations.

The future "Mother of the American Valentine" was born in Worcester, Mass., in 1828. Her father was Samuel E. Howland, a direct descendant of Mayflower Howlands and a prominent stationer, bookbinder and printer in Worcester from 1821. Esther was educated at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (today's Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, Mass., where she was strongly influenced by Mary Lyon, the school's progressive founder. A "brilliant student", Esther clearly took to heart Lyon's inspiring words of advice to her female charges: "Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do."

Although Saint Valentine's Day festivities were forbidden at Mount Holyoke, exchanging valentine notes - a few poetic lines beautifully written on a sheet of paper - was a secret pastime among many of the young scholars. After graduating in 1847, Howland received an elaborate English valentine that fired her imagination and forever changed her life. Relishing the card as an object of beauty but also with the eye of an entrepreneur, she quickly grasped is potential. According to one account, she created leap-year valentines for 1848 and distributed them to her former classmates. Their enthusiastic response delivered a message she could not ignore.

With characteristic determination, Howland convinced her father to order lace paper and other supplies from England, Germany and New York City so that she could make a dozen samples, which her brother reluctantly agreed to take with him on his next sales trip. Secretly hoping for $200 in orders, Esther and her father were stunned when her brother returned with orders exceeding $5,000.

Once she had recruited friends and established her now famous assembly line, Howland's business was born. Touting a beautiful product and a wide range of prices, advertising and word of mouth led to a $100,000-per-year business and ensured this ingenious woman a place in history.

First called Mother of the American Valentine in a newspaper after her death in 1904, Howland's enduring claim to fame lies not only in having produced the first elaborate, European-style, hand-assembled valentines in America, but perhaps more significantly in having popularized Valentine's Day cards across the country, from Maine to California. Today's multi-billion-dollar greeting card industry is heavily indebted to the vision, talent and business acumen of Esther Howland.

Text accompanying photographs

Esther Howland's valentine creations are intricate wonders to behold. The front, back and inside of this silvered lace-paper card (opposite and below) are filled with classical symbols of love. The lyre shape, an attribute of Apollo, suggests marital harmony. The bar across the top represents the torch of Hymen, god of marriage. The peacock may be one of the sacred pair that drew the chariot of Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the Greek gods, and the chariot on the back continues that theme. Since Howland felt sentiment was personal, she usually placed it inside the card.

The pattern of the gilded lace paper (left) is enhanced by an underlay of orange wafers at the corners and lavender glazed paper behind it all. Folded paper springs enabled the separate layers to rise up, creating a dramatic shadow-box effect. At the top are cherubs flanking an altar of love, and an eagle and American flag are at right. A couple appears at the bottom - their heads obscured, suggesting a kiss.

Characteristic of Howland's creations, this card (above) presents a forget-me-not theme. Red stamps (right) identify her early cards. The number is the price, 35 cents, and the H, with serifs, marks it as a Howland card, not to be confused with the sans serif H of a later company.


Text of silvered lace paper card photo at lower left of page 63:

Love for Love
Dear youth I do accept your heart,
And value much the prize
For tho'you ne'er did tell your love,
I read it in your eyes.

The two cards shown here display the three-dimensional effect produced by paper accordion springs typical of those manufactured by Howland's all-female assembly line. The cards were passed along it before Howland's final inspection. The embossed N.E.V. Co. reflects a company name change made in the 1870s when it became New England Valentine Company. The 10 indicates a price of 10 cents.

Text of photo at lower right of page 64:

my dear.

Text of last paragraph on the Contributors page (page 10), a short introduction to Nancy Rosin:

NANCY ROSIN has been immersed in valentines for 30 years. She shares her passion through articles and her video The Valentine and Expressions of Love. She is the vice president of the National Valentine Collectors' Association, a director of the Ephemera Society of America, and the valentine editor for Firstcuts. She has been featured on Martha Stewart Living and the A&E Network program The Incurable Collector. See her Web site: www.VictorianTreasury.com.

Copyright 2005 (c) Nancy Rosin
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