Esther Howland (1828–1904) was an artist and businesswoman who is responsible for popularizing Valentine's Day greeting cards in America.
Esther Howland Valentine card, "Affection" ca. 1870s
Esther Howland was graduated from Mount Holyoke College (then Mount Holyoke Women's Seminary) in 1847, just 10 years after its opening. Though Mount Holyoke did not celebrate Saint Valentine's Day, students often secretly exchanged poems elaborately scrawled on sheets of paper. After her graduation, Howland received an ornate English Valentine from a business associate of her father when she was 19 years old. Intrigued with the idea of making similar Valentines, she began her business importing paper lace and floral decorations from England. At this time elaborate Valentine greeting cards were imported from Europe and not affordable to many Americans.
Her father operated the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts, and ordered supplies for her project. She made a dozen samples which her salesman brother added to his inventory for his next sales trip. Hoping for $200.00 worth of orders, she was elated when he returned with over $5,000 worth of business for her. Howland employed friends and developed a thriving business in Worcester, Massachusetts using an assembly line. She named her business the "New England Valentine Company". Her valentines became renowned throughout the United States and she was called "The Mother of the American Valentine." Her business eventually grossed over $100,000 per year, a considerable sum for that time, and she eventually sold the business to George Whitney in 1881 after many successful years.