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Esther and the Valentine

Though she may not have invented the Valentine's Day card, she may be the reason you'll buy your sweetheart a Valentine this year. Born into a man's world in 1828, Esther Howland was a veritable Valentine's mogul. Founder of the New England Valentine Company, she was responsible for popularising Valentine's Day cards in the US. Before she started a cardmaking business from her home, valentines were imported from Europe. Esther not only made domestically-made Valentine's cards available in the US, but mass-produced them on such a scale that they could be found all over the country.


One of Esther's Valentine's Day cards, made in the 1870's.


But when I say Esther mass-produced valentines, it may not look exactly like what you imagine. Her company's ability to make cards en-masse stemmed not from big machines, but from an ingenious way of organizing labour. Long before Henry Ford's Model T's, Esther Howland used the assembly-line method to efficiently manufacture incredibly complex Valentine's Day cards. While Ford may have employed the men of America, Esther was able to employ the women. Her valentines were not simply printed onto paper like the majority we see today, but were lavish (and expensive) affairs, intricately collaged and accented with lace. To expedite the manufacturing process, she harnessed wo-man power, having each worker focus on a single task: one woman would cut the paper, another would paste it, another would add lace, and so on. In this way, she could make a beautiful hand-made product in a fraction of the usual time.


Esther grew her business by hiring the women she knew. At a time when women had very few opportunities for making their own money outside of domestic work, Esther was able to give twomen steady employment. Ironically, Esther was never married - she had turned a celebration of (mainly) heterosexual love into a means for her and the women she employed to gain independence. Because of her Valentine business, she did not need a husband to have financial stability.


Esther was dubbed "Cupid's Capitalist" by Forbes magazine as she turned a huge profit from her business - making an estimated 25 000 to 100 000 dollars, the equivalent of 800 000 to 3 000 000 dollars today. Her New England Valentine Company became so big that it almost monopolised the valentine business in the US. However, despite her success, she was eventually forced to give it up in 1880 when she chose to focus on taking care of her ill father. The company, and her life's work, was sold to a competitor.


Whether you see Esther as a feminist or a capitalist or both, you can't deny that she has a lasting legacy. Come February, Valentine's cards and other paraphernalia are available in every grocery, drug, or dollar store. Hearts and lace are in your face regardless of your plans to celebrate. But whether you're a kid giving out cards and treats at school, or having a Galentine's celebration with your friends, it can always be nice to get a little note to remind you that someone cares.


 

This Valentine's Day, I will be following in Esther's tradition and making multi-layered Valentine's Day cards with the message of your choice to give to someone you love (or keep for yourself), included in the Valentine's Day Tea Box. If you're in Edmonton and looking for something sweet, check out my February specials, because whether you're celebrating with friends, your partner, or a cat, we all deserve a treat.

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