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Esther's gift and a legacy of love

by CAROL SHIRK KNAPP Contributing Writer
| February 10, 2021 1:00 AM

Since women buy about 85 percent of Valentine's cards it's a sure bet I bought the card with the verse we memorized — although my husband and I had to reach back to high school to get it right. “You know that I love you, and you must know, too, That my happiest moments are those spent with you. For when we're together, or when we're apart, You're first in my thoughts and first in my heart.” The deciding factor — he remembers reading the words over and over.

Esther Howland, the “Mother of the American Valentine,” born August 17, 1828, was both artist and businesswoman. Her father owned the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts. She'd just graduated Mount Holyoke College at the age of 19 when she received a beautiful valentine card from a family friend in England.

Esther decided she could make an even better one. She persuaded her father to invest in supplies. Her brother took a dozen of her artistic samples on his next regular sales trip for their father's store. She hoped to garner $200 in orders. Her brother returned with over $5,000 for her.

In 1850, she started an assembly line business in a guest bedroom on the third floor of her family's home on Summer Street. She cut the basic designs, and her friends copied each card. There were also women who worked from their homes putting together boxes with required materials. A driver picked up and delivered the boxes to Esther each week. Valentine cards had been around 50 years — but she was the first in the country to commercialize them.

She established the New England Valentine Company and began importing supplies from England. Her simplest cards sold for five cents. Ones with ribbon or gilded lace, hidden doors or detailed illustrations, or with an interior envelope that could hold a lock of hair or an engagement ring, cost $1 to $1.50. She went even more innovative with “lift up” valentines built in layers, three-dimensional accordion effects, and flower bouquets that moved to reveal a verse when pulled by a string.

Esther incorporated her business in 1870 and moved to a factory in 1879. She also designed Christmas and birthday cards, New Year's cards, and May baskets — which shipped all over the country. Her New England Valentine Company grossed $100,000 a year.

She'd had a knee injury that landed her in a wheelchair when she was only 38 years old. Yet she sold her profitable business in 1880 at the age of 52 to care for her father who was ill. Years later, bedridden eight months with a broken femur, she died in her home in Quincy on March 15, 1904.

Esther's legacy — though most people probably do not know her by name — is celebrated in all those cards we buy each Valentine's Day. Maybe not as artsy and intricate as the ones she created — but still given with love.

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