Esther Allen Howland, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, was the daughter of Southworth Allen Howland (1800-1882) and Esther Allen Howland (1801-1860). The sister of Charles, Edward, and William Howland. Her mother wrote the cookbook, The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book, which was published in 1844 (and for the next ten years) by her father S. A. Howland.
Her father, Southworth Howland, operated S.A. Howland & Sons. the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Howland 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.
Shortly after graduating from Mount Holyoke College at the age of 19, Esther Howland received a valentine from a business associate of her father's. The valentine was decorated with an elaborate fine lace border and cut out ornate flowers that have been colored and pasted on. In the center of the valentine was a small pale green envelope that contained a note with a red border and a verse appropriate for Valentine's Day. At this time elaborate Valentine greeting cards were imported from Europe and not affordable to many Americans.
Determined that she could make a better valentine she convinced her father to order her supplies from New York City and England. She made a dozen samples which her salesman brother added to his inventory for his next sales trip for their father's business. 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. In the Howlands Residence on Summer Street a guest bedroom on the third floor was set up for Esther's newly founded business. Esther was in charge of cutting the basic design for the individual valentines while the assembly group was responsible for carefully copying each card. Esther also hired women who had to work from home by preparing a box with all the materials required. A week later they would be picked up by a driver and turned to Esther for their inspection. It's been said according to Howland that her girls were paid "liberally" and that work was "light and pleasant." She also would inspect every card that was produced by her assistants. Her early cards contained short four line verses pasted inside of them much like earlier English valentines. This set-up would eventually become standard for the valentine market. Although valentine's day cards had been available in America for more than half a century before Esther started her business she was the first person to ever commercialize them in America.
In 1850 her first advertisement appeared in the Worcester Spy. Soon enough she found herself in the position of a businesswoman. She began to import materials from Germany. She also came up with the idea of using silk and embossing lithograph ornaments. With success brought competition. In order to distinguish her valentines Esther began stamping the letter "H" on the back of her cards in red ink along with the price and the letters ‘N.E.V.Co.’ which stood for the name of her company New England Valentine Company. While a simple cards made by her sold only for five cents. Cards that included ribbons, artistic illustrations, hidden doors, gilded lace, and interior envelopes that could hold more secret messages, locks of hair or even engagement rings , sold up to one dollar to fifty dollars. which at the time a considerable amount of money. Esther also created Christmas cards, New Years cards, Birthday cards, Booklets, and May baskets. Esther suffered from a knee injury in 1866 which forced her to be in a wheelchair. In 1870 Esther Howland incorporated her business as the New England Valentine Company she then continued to work from her home until 1879 when she then moved to a factory. During that same year she published the The New England Valentine Co.’s Valentine Verse Book that consisted of thirty-one pages. The book was intended for customers who found a beautiful card but didn't like the verse that was inside. With the book they could choose from a total of 131 verses all printed in red, green, blue, and gold ink and came in 3 different sizes. With their chosen verse they could then paste it over the original verse inside the card that they had bought. In 1879 Esther decided to merge her business with one of her competitors Edward Taft.
Her valentines became renowned throughout the United States and she was called "The Mother of the American Valentine." Due to her cards being shipped all over the country 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 1880 in order to take care of her sick father. In 1904 Esther fractured a femur and was bedridden for 8 months. She then died in her home at 9 Adams St in Quincy.
She is also credited for the introduction of the "lift-up" valentine. These valentine's consisted of several paper-lace motifs built upon one another in layers. Esther Howland also created many innovations of valentine designs. She introduced the layering of lace, use of thin colored paper, three dimensional accordion effects and a bouquet in which flowers would move to reveal a verse when pulled by a string. Many of which are still being used today.