Sharing Mana‘o

It’s too late for this Valentine’s Day, but if your sweetheart is an old-fashioned gal or guy, I’ve found the perfect card for you! It’s a bit pricey, but you should probably buy it now because it’s sure to cost more next February, if it’s even available by then.

An eBay collector is selling a rare antique Victorian valentine, an original Esther Howland card. It’s listed at $450 or best offer, but it’s never been used and it appears to be in excellent condition. The front of the card is elaborately trimmed with intricate blossoms and a portrait of young lovers in a garden, with the words “Token of Love” hidden beneath a paper lace pop-up. Inside, the verse reads:

Ah! me Love

Dare I hope,

Those soft and gentle eyes,

When turned away from me

Are veiled in Love’s disguise

To hide a love as true

As mine, dear Heart, for you.

Esther Howland is known as the “Mother of the American Valentine.” She was the first person to mass-produce and sell Valentine’s Day cards in the United States. Born in 1828, her mother was a cookbook author and her father owned a successful stationery business. When she was 19, one of her father’s vendors sent her an English valentine, much more extravagant than the simple handmade cards Americans were accustomed to exchanging. Impressed and intrigued, she asked her father to order special materials like lace and fine papers from England and New York, then set about creating her own versions of sentimental greeting cards.

Within a couple of years, she had designed a dozen different cards and convinced her brother to take them along on his sales calls for the family’s store. To everyone’s surprise, her brother returned with $5,000 worth of orders for the fancy new valentines. Esther organized her friends into an assembly line of card-makers and, before long, she had a successful business of her own: the New England Valentine Co.

A natural entrepreneur, Esther built an inventory for suitors of all means. Her simplest cards sold for 5 cents apiece, while the more elaborate ones, some featuring inner envelopes for a personal message or a lock of hair or even a ring, commanded up to $50. Bear in mind, this was in the mid-1800s, so that was probably equivalent to paying $450 for a single card today.

The New England Valentine Co. employed dozens of women over four decades and, according to Esther, grossed $100,000 annually. In 1880, she sold the business and retired to care for her ailing father. She died in 1904 at the age of 75. She never married, nor was she known to have had any serious love interests. In fact, it seems that the only valentine she ever received was the English card that launched her career.

I don’t think that bothered Esther, though. From all accounts, she was an aristocratic, confident woman who enjoyed driving horses and dressing fashionably. On business trips, she traveled alone, shocking society by refusing to employ a chaperone. I doubt that she ever waited in vain at her mailbox like Charlie Brown, hoping for that special valentine.

Today, in honor of Esther Howland, I’m going to shop for an old-fashioned valentine card, one with lace on the front and a love poem inside. I don’t have a recipient in mind, but that’s OK, I’ll keep it as a reminder of Esther’s ingenuity and independence. I won’t be buying her card on eBay, though. Pretty as it is, I’m not inclined to pay $450 for inspiration.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.

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