By Brett Peruzzi, Managing Editor
WORCESTER – If you get a Valentine’s Day card today, you owe some measure of thanks to 19th century Worcester native Esther Howland, who made her hometown the capital of the holiday’s greeting card industry.
Family background helped
Her father owned the largest book and stationery store in Worcester. Not long after graduating from Mt. Holyoke College in 1847, Howland received a Valentine’s Day greeting card. During that time, most cards of that type were expensive imports from Europe that often included elaborate elements like layers of paper lace, ribbons, and other materials. She was convinced she could make high quality Valentine’s Day cards in the United States that she could sell at much lower prices. Howland enlisted her father to help her find suppliers for the card materials and her salesman brother to add her new cards to his stationery product line. She set up shop initially in a spare room in the family home.
Success came soon
By 1850, Howland’s enterprise was a thriving business, introducing numerous innovative card designs and shipping Valentine’s Day cards around the United States. Howland became known as “The Mother of the American Valentine.”. Her company at its zenith grossed as much $100,000 a year, about $3.6 million today and expanded into birthday and Christmas cards as well. In 1879, she merged her company with a local competitor, naming it the New England Valentine Company, but within two years sold it to The Whitney Company of Worcester so she could focus on caring for her ailing father.
The heart of the industry
Worcester became the capital of the American Valentine industry, with 90 percent of Valentine’s Day cards in the country being made there by the first decade of the 20th century. The Whitney Company continued to make Valentine’s Day cards in Worcester until 1942. Paper shortages during World War II sadly brought about the demise of the world’s largest greeting card company.
Howland, who revolutionized a product used by millions of people to profess their love for someone, never married. Whether she ever sent one of her Valentine’s Day cards to someone special in her life is unknown.