Friday, February 9, 2018

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Designing Love

Valentine’s Day is approaching. My sweetie and I are trying to determine how to celebrate. Millions of people from school-agers to senior citizens will be purchasing or making cards to share with loved ones. To a large part, this nineteenth century heroine made that possible.

Esther Howland was born in 1828 in Worcester, Massachusetts, into a family that owned a prosperous book and stationery store there. She graduated Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847. After receiving a valentine from an associate of her father’s, she decided she could do better.

And she did.

Now, there were Valentine’s Day cards made before Esther started, but she was the first to create them on a commercial scale in America. She used lace, gold, and colored prints to bring her creations to life. For those who might not be able to express themselves sufficiently, she even published a valentine writer with suggested verses. (We covered those here.) 

Her work was so in demand she had to start her own business and hire friends, creating an assembly line. She designed, her employees copied, and together they produced valentines that were considered elegant, refined, and of the highest quality. Simple cards went for 5 cents each. The most elaborate, with secret pockets for engagement rings or personal messages, cost as much as $50 dollars!

She trained hundreds of women through the years, most of whom worked from home for reasonable wages. Esther herself worked from a wheelchair the last 15 years she was in the business. She died in 1904, unmarried but highly successful, having grossed more than $100,000 a year many years (an amount close to $3 million in today’s dollars). She is known by many as the Mother of the American Valentine.

She simply loved her work.

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