love american style

The virulent American contagion of giving St. Valentine’s Day cards can be traced back to patient zero, a certain teen-age girl in Worcester, Massachusetts.

It was there in 1847 that, after seeing crude, poorly designed British Valentine cards in her father’s stationery shop, 19-year-old Esther Howland decided she could come up with a prettier, more romantic offering.

Virgin Esther Howland, creator of the American St. Valentine's Day card, mulling over her non-existent love life.
Virgin Esther Howland, creator of the American St. Valentine’s Day card, mulling over her non-existent love life.

Esther did, and how; her printed, colorful love sentiments swept through the American populace like strep throat through a kindergarten.

Soon, Miss Ester, after hiring eight young women for a Valentine-card assembly line, was earning a hundred thousand dollars a year selling her intricately designed, improved Valentine cards. This feat is even more impressive when you realize that in the mid-1800s, a hundred thousand dollars was equivalent to almost three million in today’s money.

According to myth, fable and comic strips, there was a time when a boy who fancied a girl, won her heart by clubbing her over the head and dragging her unconscious, nubile — albeit hairy — body back to his cave. Even though this practice obviously could leave a woman addle-headed and too goofy to cook and keep house. Or, should I say, keep cave.

This crude courtship method no doubt caused serious domestic problems later. A wife would need to be at the peak of physical strength and mental acuity to skin and cook a wooly mammoth. She would have needed to possess well-honed Palinesque qualities.

Ever since humankind left said caves, men had tried a variety of more subtle means to win feminine affections — such as wearing powdered wigs, rouge and knee pants, taking minuet lessons — and taking an occasional bath, whether they needed it or not.

For centuries, men have gone along with most anything to curry favor from the opposite sex, even if it included irksome activities like attending the female’s family gatherings, Broadway musicals – and in extreme cases — River Dance performances.

Even though genetically repelled by these things, males would, as they used to say in the cotton mill, “lay their ears back and bite the bit.”

Cloth and lace Valentine card made by Esther Howland, ca. 1870s. Typescript inside card: 'You say my heart, my too fond heart, Is cold, my dear, to you; Ah! canst thou such a thought impart To one who loves so true?'
Cloth and lace Valentine card made by Esther Howland, ca. 1870s. Typescript inside card: ‘You say my heart, my too fond heart, Is cold, my dear, to you; Ah! canst thou such a thought impart To one who loves so true?’

There had to be a better way; a simple, efficient master key to unlock the distaff heart. Enter Miss Esther Howland and her St. Valentine’s Day cards. Bingo!

Esther Howland’s Valentine’s cards with their lace and sappy poems were a done deal. Not wanting to appear as an oafish lout, every guy with some change or a spare buck or two went along with the new St. Valentine’s Day protocol, secretly hoping for a huge personal return on his initial small investment.

It is almost certain the Valentine card craze started as a fad, like the pet-rock mania of the 1970s. (This, by the way, was one of the more embarrassing episodes of human history. Even people who were totally caught up in the pet-rock lunacy will vehemently deny it today. I do not blame them.)

However, Valentine cards have stood the test of time. Business analysts say Americans spend nearly $20 billion yearly on Valentine cards, candy, flowers and related items.

We are talking Wall Street bailout money here, folks! Donald Trump loot.

However, the Esther Howland story has its tragic aspect, too. Despite being the proxy matchmaker for countless millions of couples, Miss Esther remained unmarried to the end of her days, a chaste, unpicked blossom. She passed away at age 76, her fortune–and her virtue—intact.

Esther Howland, who had turned expressions of romantic love into a successful commercial enterprise, never got as much as one hickey on her neck or bottom pinch in return – as far as we know. Esther probably didn’t get a Valentine’s card, either. At least, not a card given with ulterior motives that meant business.

If Cupid ever shot an arrow at a male suitor on Miss Esther’s behalf, he must have missed and wounded an innocent bystander.

Despite the urge to give cards and candy on February 14th being woven into the strands of our society’s DNA, the contrarian head of the National Business League recently suggested that people use their imaginations when choosing Valentine gifts, and not stick with the traditional items.

Do what?

I am not so sure this is good advice. I once knew a high school freshman, a country boy, who was so grateful to a senior girl –unnamed here — who had tutored him in math, he felt moved to give her a special gift.

After much deliberation, he decided to give the young lady a jar of udder balm, the special salve his farmer daddy used on their cows that had been chafed by the milking machine.

In a word, “teat” ointment.

Surely, I do not have to describe this town girl’s reaction when she later found out the intended use of this special crème.

As a rule, I would advise any guy, who is not an expert on what women really want, to stick with cards, flowers and candy.

And that would be most of us. Ixnay on the udder balmnay.


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