History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 February 2009

All Hail Queen (of Hearts) Esther Howland

Esther who?

With florists and jewelers doing a land-office business around February 14, sooner or later, someone was bound to see the commercial potential in romantic greeting cards. And who has the time to make each missive with their loving hands?

The visionary was Esther Howland (1828-1904), a Worcester Massachusetts native and Mount Holyoke graduate who never married. But of course Jane Austen never wed either, and one could never accuse her of not knowing a thing or two about romance.

A classmate of Emily Dickinson's, Howland graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1847 at the age of 19. When she received an ornate English Valentine from a business associate of her father’s, her heart skipped a beat—because she saw dollar signs.

Her family owned Worcester's largest stationery and book store, so she already had connections. Esther created a dozen prototypes of her Valentines and gave them to her brother to include in his sample book. When he returned from his business trip with more than $5,000 in orders, Esther realized she wasn't going to be able to process all those orders alone. So she started up her own greeting card business, importing machine-embossed paper lace (think doilies) and floral decorations from England, and employing her female friends to manufacture Valentines using the process and techniques of an assembly line (take that, Henry Ford!)

On February 5, 1850 she took out her first advertisement in a Worcester paper, The Daily Spy.

Soon, things were booming; in 1879, Howland's company was named the New England Valentine Company (her valentines usually have a NEV CO on a red sticker on the back); and the little cottage industry moved from Esther's family home to a building of its own. She published a thirty-one-page book of verses and allowed her clients to chose their own poem for their valentines.

Esther Howland became known as the "Mother of the American Valentine" and her company brought in annual revenues of $100,000. The decades between 1840 and 1860 were the golden age for sentimental Valentines. Even after they caught on in America, the perforated lace paper used for making them was still manufactured only in England, so Esther continued to import the lace-edged “blanks” for her company’s cards. But she introduced several innovations of her own to the Valentine-making industry: she is credited with the idea of placing a thin sheet of colored paper under the white paper lace, to produce a contrast, as well as with the concept of a three-dimensional “shadow box” card.

A recurrent knee knjury forced Esther to work from a wheelchair since 1866. And in 1881, Howland sold the business to the George C. Whitney Company so she could care for her ailing father.

As people who focus on love and romance nearly every day because it’s what you write about, does Valentines Day have any special place in your heart? Do you think of it as a “busman’s holiday?” Do you send Valentines? Do you make them yourself, or do you buy them? Are you one of those people who send a little valentine to many people in your life to remind them that you think they’re special, or do you save all your love for one recipient?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Amanda,

I only pick out one special Valentine's Day card...for my husband.

Enjoyed your post. I remember being in a historic home(drat! cannot remember where!), and on the top floor was an exhibit on the elaborate Valentines the Victorians were so fond of. I loved looking at those intricate pieces of art.

I'd collect old Valentines, but between my book collection, doll collection, and stamp collection, I don't think there's any more room!

Christine Trent

6:50 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks for this great bit of information, Amanda. I didn't know about Esther Howland. What a smart woman!

Valentines Day means a great deal to me because it was one of my late DH's favorite holidays. He always found the perfect card and made sure I got a card from our dog, Sasha too. I miss them both very much at this time of year.

I do send Valentines to family members and friends just to let them know I love them. I wish I had the time to make my own cards, but I do try to find really unique cards to send.

Those old original Valentines are truly works of art!

6:51 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Christine, your collections sound amazing! What kind of dolls do you collect? Were you always a doll-person, growing up?

Louisa, your reply really touched me.

My literary agent hosts a ladies-only Valentines tea on the Sunday before Valentines Day, and after drinking champagne and tea and nibbling on tea-type snacks, we make Valentines. My efforts were pretty dorky (a five year old could do better), but I made 4 cards for my husband and this year he is the only recipient. Every other day this week, I put one where he'll find it (like near his wallet). :)

I've sent them to my young niece and nephew in the past, but I'm not entirely sure they were appreciated.

I often buy Valentines, but store-bought cards, plus postage, can really add up, these days. I always try to look for something unusual, too, Louisa.

For the longest time, my mother used to send me a valentine, sometimes with a question mark on it, but if course I can always recognize her handwriting on the envelope! Still, it was sweet, because when it came to receiving valentines as a kid (or even as a young woman) I was more like Charlie Brown than the most popular kid in class.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a sweet idea to leave Valentines for your husband all week! I'll have to try that out next year, as this year I just have my ol' store-bought card waiting for the weekend.

My doll collection is a cornucopia of Barbie, handmade creations from other countries, and "designer" dolls. I've always had dolls. My husband says I'm a "girl's girl" because I like all the girly things (dolls, going to tea, cooking, scrapbooking etc.). My collection took off when I worked on a State Department contract in the 1980's. Teams of workers going to Embassies all over the world would bring back dolls for me. Soon the collection had swelled into a few hundred pieces. I call it a collection, my husband calls it "out of control." :-) Bless him, he's in the process of building me some new doll cases to hold them all.

And now you know how I got the plot for "The Queen's Dollmaker"!

Shameless plug:
Did a dollmaker conspire to smuggle money and jewels to the imprisoned Marie Antoinette inside fashion dolls?
Coming early 2010 from Kensington Books

The tea your agent hosts sounds fabulous. Just the kind of thing I would love.

Have a great day, Amanda. Can't wait to read your next book.


9:44 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Is anyone surprised to hear that Valentine's Day doesn't work for me? Or for my husband -- we two children of the 60s simply can't get amorous when officially urged to do so.

And so we stick to the words of John Donne: same ones my Slightest Provocation heroine has engraved on the pocket watch her husband carries through the years of their separation:

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I/ Did, till we loved?

(Because it was like sending my husband a valentine to have him find that line in the draft of The Slightest Provocation when he first read it there)

10:25 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, I'm sure you and your husband are among many who don't appreciate a mandated love-day (I, for one, think we should treat our loved ones like every day was Valentines Day); and of course there are all kinds of "valentines," by which I mean endearing love tokens and romantic inside jokes or secrets shared only by the two lovers -- at any any all times.

Christine, I have a doll collection that my mother started (her parents used to travel all over the world and bring back dolls -- beautiful ones with handpainted porcelain faces and limbs) in their native costumes or stitched from cotton or silk (I'm looking at the ones from Japan and Bali as I type this). Many of the dolls from Europe are in a glass case that still reposes in the Bronx bedroom where my sister and I grew up (now my mom's home office).

Call me madcap, but I'm still partial to a couple of the baby dolls I've had since I was a little girl.

I'm really looking forward to "The Queen's Dollmaker" -- it seems like the "write what you know" adage will really pay off!

10:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Amanda, you're just a madcap gal! :-)

My most sentimental doll is a really cheap one my parents got me when I was about ten years old. She's an adult-looking doll, and wears a maxi dress (OK, so I was a kid in the 70's!). She used to have dangle earrings but they are long lost. The doll means a lot to me because I also have a photograph of our Christmas tree from that year, and among the open presents in the photo is that doll.

When my husband is finished building cases, I'm going to frame that photo and put it in the case with that doll.

I once had a genuine set of Madame Alexander's "Little Women" dolls from the 1950's. They were lost in a move. Ugh.

Pam, love the John Donne quote.


1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband and I usually just exchange cards. This year we are doing something different. We are walking as a family in a 5k to raise money for heart disease. He had a heart attack/by-pass surgery last October. We have much to celebrate with his recovery and wanted to give back.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Amy, that's wonderful! I'm so glad your husband's healthy now. And there's nothing like all the stuff that goes on with a real heart (in every way) to put the paper ones in perspective. My father had quadruple bypass surgery over Thanksgiving back in 1991 and we give thanks every year for his "rebirth" as though 1991 was the year of the new beginning.

6:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post! I've always liked Valentine's Day. We always did cards and small gifts in my family. It was fun to come down to breakfast Valentine's Day morning and find fun surprises--my mom got me a red mug one year, a great red lacey slip when I was teenager, a poster of Kevin Costner in Bull Durham I still have. Now I usually do cards and small gifts with some of my friends. And it's fun to wear red and have a good excuse to watch a romantic movie and drink champagne :-).

3:52 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, your family Valentine's Days sound like fun. I can't imagine my mother getting me a red lacy slip, though (you should have heard the comments she made about a pair of red linen shoes -- stiletto heel/peep toe -- that I bought for myself when I was in my 20s!) And I'll take any "excuse" to watch a romantic movie and drink champagne!

4:52 PM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

My husband and I give each other cards on Valentine's Day. As for flowers, he buys me flowers all year, so I don't care if he buys me flowers on Valentine's Day.

He'll also go to the Borders across the street from where he works and pick up a romance novel I want. He doesn't care what people might think about a man buying a romance. Now there's a gift.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Linda, I saw a feature on the "Today" show this morning about a married couple who create custom-made romance novels for couples, incorporating details of their own love life/romantic history into the text. The books, which the authors seem to print from their home, cost "about the price of a dozen roses" -- which I assume means florist-inflated-Valentines Day prices, and not what we pay at a local Korean deli in NYC.

11:20 AM  

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