When young Esther Howland, whose family operated a large bookstore in Worcester Mass, went off to the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, she didn’t have an IPod, a laptop, or even a walkman for entertainment. Instead, like her fellow student Emily Dickinson, she would have been reading about current events like the annexation by the US of California and New Mexico, Texas and Iowa joining the Union as the 28th & 29th states, the great potato famine in Ireland, and the US war with Mexico.
She would have had access to literature of the time including works by Frederick Douglas writing about the life of an American slave, Longfellow penning “Evangeline”, Emerson “Hamatreya”, and Poe publishing “The Raven and Other Poems”.
She graduated in 1847 at the age of 19 from Mount Holyoke and began helping out at the bookstore when she received a fancy lace-paper English Valentine from one of her father’s business associates. She had an idea that she might be able to hand craft better ones to sell through her father’s business and persuaded him to order lace-paper and supplies from England and New York city. She made samples and gave them to her brother to offer to vendors on his next sales trip. She had planned to sell at least $200 worth of the cards and was astounded when her brother returned with more than $5000 in orders!
A whole new segment of the Howland family business was born. At first, with the help of friends, an assembly line was set up in the Howland family home and business boomed. By 1879 the New England Valentine Company was born and Esther published 31 pages of verse from which customers could select for their cards.
Although Esther never married she was inspired by her contemporaries and had a great deal of creativity when it came to fantasy and romance. For more than 30 years she set the gold standard for Valentines both in verse and appearance. She didn’t make the first Valentine cards in America but she made them better and turned the lace Valentine into an industry. Shortly after her death she was memorialized in the newspaper as "The Mother of the American Valentine".
For 2012 the Greeting Card Association estimates that 150 million Valentine's Day cards will be purchased, a figure that excludes children's packaged valentines. And according to the National Retail Federation, the average person celebrating Valentine's Day will spend $126.03, up 8.5% from last year. Total spending is expected to reach $17.6 billion.
We can thank Esther for creating the romantic Valentine card with a verse that expresses our feelings without us actually having to say the words. Whew! Thanks Esther!