ASK THE HALLMARK HISTORIAN: Esther Howland, the original Valentine

For starters, of course Hallmark did not invent Valentine’s Day. We weren’t even the first to make valentines: That was Esther Howland. For more on such an important topic—as always—we called in Hallmark Historian Samantha B. 

The first American publisher of paper lace valentines was printer and artist Esther Howland (1828–1904). A daughter of a prominent Worchester, Massachusetts bookseller and stationer, Esther began her business shortly after receiving her first English lace valentine in 1847.

Esther was fascinated with the idea of making similar cards, and imported the necessary embossed and perforated paper lace and envelopes from England. Her first valentines sold in her father’s shop in 1849.

Original valentine designed by Esther Howland.

Original valentine designed by Esther Howland.

The first cards Esther produced featured small “wafers” of coordinating colors under the white paper lace. She also occasionally used contrasting colors for a spontaneous playful look in her valentines.

Her brother later took several dozen along as samples on a selling trip, and Esther was amazed when he returned with orders amounting to $5,000, an astronomical amount at the time: It would amount to roughly $150,000 today.

The demand was far more than she could make by herself, so she set up a work area in a large room in her parent’s home and recruited friends to assist her. They formed an assembly line—cutting pictures, pasting fabric and trim, and attaching paper lace—to make the valentines.

Original valentine designed by Esther Howland featuring classic cherub

Original valentine designed by Esther Howland featuring colorful greenery

Innovations attributed to her 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.

Her assembly line operation became a thriving operation grossing as much as $100,000 ($3 million today), with sales reaching as far as California. Esther’s valentine business continued until 1879 when her father’s illness required her to sell the company.

Esther sold her successful business in 1880 to George C. Whitney Company, also of Worchester. 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.

Original valentine designed by Esther Howland featuring ornate greenery

Ornate framed greeting card designed by Esther Howland

Esther’s earliest, largest. and most ornate valentines were not signed, but are recognized mostly by style. She later marked each card with a red “H” in the upper-left corner of the back.

Over 150 of Esther’s designs are stored in the Hallmark Archives, and, as early as the 1950s, Hallmark artists have used her lacy valentines for inspiration.

Haven’t seen enough? Find more vintage Hallmark Valentine inspiration here. And find our newest future classics on and wherever Hallmark cards are sold.


Leave a Comment

  1. 2.19.18 | Reply
    Cee Jay Long wrote:

    Love this historical piece and all the others the blog has provided. More please!