Artist Esther Howland (1828–1904) was the first to publish and sell Valentine cards in the United States. Before Esther, many Valentine cards were hand made with paper, lace, and ribbons and handwritten poetry. By the end of the 19th century, most Valentines were mass-produced by machine, many based off Esther’s designs.
Esther was inspired by an English Valentine she received from a friend of her father’s when she was 19. By this time, mass-produced Valentines of paper lace were already popular in the U.K., with almost half the population spending money on cards, flowers, chocolates, and other gifts for their Valentines.
Esther loved her Valentine so much, she began importing the paper lace and other materials she needed from England to make her own cards. She made a dozen samples and gave them to her brother, a salesman for their father’s stationey store.
Shocked when her brother returned from his sales trip with over $5,000 worth of orders for her cards, Esther started hiring friends for her new business in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Esther’s Valentines grew famous around the country, and she began to be called “The Mother of the American Valentine”. In 1881 when Esther was 53 she eventually sold her business, which had grown incredibly successful, grossing over $100,000 per year.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.