She launched a business empire when she was nineteen years old. Her New England Valentine Company grossed $5,000 in its first year and was earning more than $100,000 annually when she retired in 1881 at the age of 53.
Her name was Esther Allen Howland (1828-1904), and today she is often called the Mother of the American Valentine’s Day card. Her alliances with two other early valentine makers, Jotham Taft (1816-1910) and George C. Whitney (1842-1915), would build the company she started in her home into an economic powerhouse.
In 1847, Worcester, Mass., native Esther Howland was a recent graduate of the 10-year-old Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Mass., when her father received a supply of English valentines to sell in his book and stationery store. She marveled at their lacy paper and floral decorations, but she thought she could do better.
Through her father’s store she imported the materials from England and set to work. Her brother was so impressed with the results that he took samples with him on selling trips and brought back orders—so many orders that Howland had to recruit friends to help her keep up with the demand.
Soon the enterprise moved to the third floor of the Howland home where there was enough room to set up an assembly line, with each employee contributing a piece to each card. Later she rented commercial space.
By the mid-1860s Jotham Taft and George C. Whitney also were building reputations as valentine makers.
According to family lore, Taft was creating valentines as early as 1840; however, 1863 is the first record we have of his efforts. Taft collected materials while traveling in Europe, and when he returned to the United States he and his wife made valentines at home.
Taft later partnered with Howland but sold his company to George Whitney when he retired.
Like Howland, George C. Whitney began selling valentines out of the stationery store he and his brother, Edward, owned in Worcester, Mass. Edward left the partnership in 1869, and in 1881, Whitney bought New England Valentine Co. from Howland.
Combined with Taft’s and Howland’s Companies, Whitney took his firm to the next level in American valentine manufacturing. He installed machinery to make lace paper and floral decorations so the firm no longer would have to import materials from England. By 1888, the company boasted stores in New York, Boston, and Chicago.
After George Whitney died in 1915, his son, Warren, took over the business. When it shut down in 1942, a victim of the World War II paper shortage, the company that had grown out of the efforts of Esther Allen Howland, Jotham Taft, and George C. Whitney was the largest valentine producer in the world.