Category Archives: Empowered Women

Fanny Brice

Women in Show Business History – Fanny Brice, Funny lady

Fanny Brice (sometimes spelled Fannie) was born on New York’s lower east side in 1891 as Fania Borach. She was the third child of Hungarian/Jewish saloon owners, but her interests were not in the family business. At fourteen years old, she made her stage debut during amateur night at Keeny’s Theater in Brooklyn. Shortly after, she started working in burlesque reviews as a singer and comedian.

In 1910 while performing in a burlesque show, she was noticed by famous show-man, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. After the show, he approached her back stage and said he wanted to put her under contract for his Ziegfeld Follies. Fanny agreed and thus began her long association with the popular entertainment icon. She performed in seven Follies between 1910 and 1923 and in several Midnight Frolic editions 1915 to 1921. In the 1921 Follies she was featured singing “My Man.” Wildly popular, the song became her signature hit.

Brice as Snooks
biography.com

Brice was most famous for her character, Baby Snooks. She performed as Baby in the 1934 Follies. Fanny and Snooks then hit the airwaves in radio at CBS and The Baby Snooks Show was featured weekly till 1948. In 1944, Brice got her own half-hour show on CBS and earned $6,000 a week. Brice was so invested in Snooks, she would often do her radio performances in costume, even though her audience couldn’t see her.

Completely devoted to the character, she told biographer Norman Katov: “Snooks is just the kid I used to be. She’s my kind of youngster, the type I like. She has imagination. She’s eager. She’s alive. With all her deviltry, she is still a good kid, never vicious or mean. I love Snooks, and when I play her I do it as seriously as if she were real. I am Snooks. For twenty minutes or so, Fanny Brice ceases to exist.”

Brice was married three times, first to a local barber, in her teens. The marriage lasted three days before she sued for divorce. Her second husband, known as the love of her life, Nicky Arnstein, was a lady’s man, professional gambler, and white collar criminal. Arnstein served fourteen months in Sing Sing for wiretapping and Brice visited him in prison every week. In 1918 they married, after living together for six years. In 1924 Arnstein was charged in a Wall Street bond theft , was convicted, and sentenced to Leavenworth Federal Prison where he served three years. Upon his release, he never returned to Fanny and their two children. She divorced him and then married Billy Rose, a songwriter and stage producer. Her third marriage, too, ended in divorce.

BriceFanny’s career was long and varied. She worked as a song “model”, comedian, singer, theater and movie actress. She starred in many films, two in which she plays herself, The Great Ziegfeld (1934) and The Ziegfeld Follies, (1936.) She recorded several songs for Victor and Columbia. After her death, she posthumously received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for her 1921 recording of “My Man.”

At the age of 59, Fanny Brice died on May 29, 1951, of a cerebral hemorrhage, in Hollywood, California, depriving the world of her varied and abundant talents. She is most famously portrayed in the movies Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975) by the incredibly talented, Barbara Streisand.

Women in Show Business History – Clara Bow, It Girl

Named the first ever “It girl,” Clara Bow, America’s favorite flapper, made a huge impact in the roaring twenties and was known as one of the decade’s leading sex symbols.

Raised as an only child, (her two siblings before her died) Clara’s survival is nothing short of miraculous. The doctors warned Sarah Frances (Gordon) Bow, and Robert Walter Bow, not to have another child after the death of the first two. But Clara was destined for the world and was born one hot July day in 1905. A survivor from birth, Clara would spend the rest of her days fighting for her dreams of a good life and stardom.

Her existence was tough from the get-go as her parents, suffering from poverty, struggled to make ends meet. Her father stayed away from home most of the time, and when he returned, often verbally and physically abused (by some accounts)  his wife and Clara. Clara, outcast by the other girls because of her ragged clothes, carrot-colored hair, and tomboy ways much preferred the company of boys.

Often lonely and unhappy, Clara sought to escape from her fractious home life by going to the movies. She said of these forays into the darkened theater, “For the first time in my life I knew there was beauty in the world.”

Clara BowAt sixteen years old, she decided to pursue a career in film. Her father, probably seeing dollar signs in his future, encouraged her, but her mother did not agree with the decision. Against her mother’s wishes and at the urging of her father, Clara entered a nationwide acting contest called “Fame and Fortune” sponsored by a Brewster’s Publications Magazine in 1921.

Showing up in her tomboyish sweater, lackluster skirt, and with absolutely no experience, Clara’s chances of winning were slim. But when she turned on the emotion, she won the judges over. She walked away with a silver trophy and an evening gown. The magazine’s publisher vowed to help her secure roles in film, but nothing happened despite her father’s relentless pressure to pursue the offer. Finally, a female director named Christy Cabanne cast her in a movie called Beyond the Rainbow released in 1922.

After the contest, Clara dropped out of high school to pursue her dreams. Her work in Beyond the Rainbow led to another role in a movie called Down to the Sea in Ships. Clara felt she was on her way, but then tragedy struck. Her mother, suffering from psychosis and epilepsy, brought on by a head injury in her youth, struggled with her mental health. The roles of mother and daughter gradually became reversed and Clara, as a young girl, tried her best to take care of her mother during and after her epileptic fits. Her often absent father offered little help and left Clara alone to deal with her mother’s erratic fits of rage and temper. One night, during one of Sarah’s rages, Clara woke up to her mother holding a knife at her throat, screaming at her. Clara’s father soon had Sarah committed, separating the two. Even though Clara knew this act was in her best interest, it still caused her great distress. In 1923, Sarah died from her epilepsy.

That same year, Clara left her father and New York and headed for Hollywood. She secured several other silent film roles and charmed audiences with her perky personality and her natural,  bold sexuality. Her roles were comprised of working-class girls, showgirls, manicurists, etc. who had big ambitions in life. These characters often flew in the face of societal and sexual convention and pursued the life of partygoing, independence, and freedom. She portrayed the perfect, adorable and charming “flapper” and the motion picture world took notice.

In 1926 she signed her first big movie contract with Paramount Pictures, and in1927 she landed the role of poor, shop-girl Betty Lou Spence in the movie It, adapted from the novella written by author Elinor Glyn. The movie was an instant box office success and Clara Bow became Paramount’s most popular star, and America’s first “It girl.”

Clara Bow evening gownClara starred in 46 silent films, and despite her heavy Brooklyn accent and marginal singing voice, transitioned to “talkies” and starred in eleven more motion pictures. Her star burned bright, but at age 26, the actress burned out under the tremendous pressure put on her by the studios and her demanding schedule. She also showed signs of mental instability, much like her mother, no doubt brought on by her stressful career. Due to her status as a sex symbol, Clara was also the subject of many scandals. Women, jealous of the actress’s natural sex appeal often accused her publically of husband stealing. Although she had affairs with many men during her heyday, “husband stealing” was not in her repertoire.

In 1931, Clara retired from acting and married Rex Bell, a rancher from Texas. She dropped out of Hollywood and went to live with him on his ranch to recuperate. After returning to health, she re-entered Hollywood with a bang. Everyone wanted her. She signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation for a two-picture deal. Both films, Savage and Hoop-La were well received. She officially retired from acting two years later and devoted her life to her husband and sons.

But, Clara could not escape her demons. Her gradual slide into mental illness culminated in a suicide attempt in 1944. She checked herself into a psychiatric institute in 1949 where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with electric shock therapy. When she was released, she did not return to the ranch but instead bought a modest bungalow where she lived out the rest of her days until she succumbed to a heart attack in 1965.

Clara Bow found a way out of her lonely childhood to become one of America’s best-loved film icons and the highest paid actress of her day. She influenced some of the most powerful people in Hollywood, and also the common woman who wanted to personify the loveable flapper with her “Clara Bow heart-shaped lips” and her charming down-to-earth realism and individuality. She will live on in the hearts and minds of many through the multitudes of photographs taken of her and what remains of her silent and “talking” films.

annie oakley mystery series kari bovee novel authorAre you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!

 

 

Repost from Empowered Women in History, 2018

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Olive Thomas

Women in Show Business History – Olive Thomas, Tragic Beauty

Olive Thomas was born Olivia R. Duffy, October 20, 1894, to a working class Irish American family in Pennsylvania. To help support her family, she left school at 15 years of age.  At 16 she married Bernard Krush Thomas. The marriage lasted two years. After her divorce she moved to New York City, lived with a family member, and worked in a Harlem department store. In 1914, she won “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest and landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Having caught the public’s attention, and the eye of the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., Olive was hired to perform in his wildly popular Ziegfeld Follies. It wasn’t long before Olive had star billing in the Midnight Frolic, a show at one of Ziegfeld’s favored venues, the Roof Top Theater of the New Amsterdam Hotel. The Frolic catered primarily to well-known male patrons. The girls’ costumes, often just a few strategically arranged balloons, allowed amusement for the gentlemen who would pop the balloons with their cigars. The beauty of Olive Thomas became legendary and she was pursued by a number of wealthy men. She is said to have had “lovely violet-blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes that seemed darker because of the translucent pallor of her skin.”

Olive ThomasKnown for her beauty, Olive was also known for her wild ways. That free spiritedness became more pronounced when she became involved with Jack Pickford of the famous Pickford family. Alcohol and cocaine became part of her partying repertoire and it proved to be reckless. She had three automobile accidents in one year. After that, she hired a chauffeur.

Screenwriter Frances Marion later remarked, “…I had seen her often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary’s brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.”

The marriage to Pickford caused much trouble for both parties. For Jack, his high-brow famous family did not approve of Olive’s work in the Frolics, and for Olive, her employer Florenz Ziegfeld accused Jack of taking her away from his entertainment dynasty. There were rumors that Flo and Olive were also romantically involved.

The relationship with Pickford could even have been said to contribute to her sudden death in 1920.  After a long night of dancing, drinking, and drugs, Olive and Jack went back to their hotel room. Suddenly, from the bathroom, Jack heard Olive scream, “Oh God!”  According to Jack’s account, Olive had accidentally drank from a bottle of something marked “poison”.  After a trip to the hospital and having her stomach pumped three times to no avail, Olive Thomas died. The autopsy stated that she died of a mixture of mercury bichloride and alcohol. Mercury bichloride was the prescribed tonic for Jack’s persistant and cronic syphyllis.

Olive Thomas had a short, but successful career. She worked for the Ziegfeld Follies and Midnight Frolic and she starred in over twenty motion pictures. She was also one of the first actresses to be termed “a flapper,” along with Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford.

Repost from March 14, 2017

painting Grace O'Malley

Irish Women in History – Grace O’Malley, Lady Pirate

Her Irish name is Gráinne Ní Mháille, and she is known as one of the most tenacious female pirates of the Emerald Isle.

Born of a noble family in 1530, Grace took over the lordship of the Ó Máille dynasty in the west of Ireland after the death of her father, despite having a brother. Not much is known of her childhood, but it is thought that she grew up at her family’s residence on Clare Island. She was most likely formally educated, as were all noble children of her time, and it is known that she spoke fluent Latin.

Grace O'Malley and menIn 1546, Grace married the heir to the O’Flaherty title, giving her more wealth and power. Her husband, Dónal an Chogaidh had aspirations of one day ruling all of Connacht, the area now known as Connemara. When her husband was killed in an ambush while hunting, Grace returned to her own lands on Clare Island where she established her principal residence. It is believed she took a shipwrecked sailor as her lover. He too was killed, and seeking revenge, Grace attacked the castle of Doona in Blacksod Bay, home to the murderers of her lover the MacMahons of Ballyvoy. She tracked them down and killed them on the nearby island of Cahir. The act earned her the nickname, “Dark Lady of Doona.”

Grace remarried, this time to “Iron Richard” Bourke, the 18thlord of Mac William Lochtar. But, she was still not done with the MacMahons. When she sailed for Ballyvoy this time, she attacked Doona Castle again, but this time took it as her own.

English might steadily grew in 16th Century Ireland, weakening O’Malley’s power. In 1593, her sons and half-brother were taken captive by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, on the grounds that O’Malley was responsible for ‘nursing’ the Irish rebellions that had occurred for more than forty years.

O’Malley sailed to England to petition Queen Elizabeth I to release them. She showed up at Greenwich Palace dressed in her finest gown and met with the English monarch surrounded by English guards. When the guards searched O’Malley’s person, they found a dagger hidden in her dress. O’Malley stated she carried it for her own safety. Elizabeth nodded her approval, and let O’Malley approach her.

O'Malley and Elizabeth
sites.google.com

Refusing to acknowledge Elizabeth as the Queen of Ireland, O’Malley did not bow upon meeting the sovereign. Despite the affront, the two had a lively discussion in Latin, and came to an agreement. The prisoners were released, Bingham was removed from his position in Ireland, and O’Malley was to stop supporting Irish rebellions. However, some of O’Malley’s other requests remained unmet, and when Bingham returned to Ireland, Grace returned to supporting the Irish rebellions during the Nine Years War.

The date of her death is not known, but historians speculated it was in 1603, the same year of Elizabeth I’s death.

Maria Edgeworth

Irish Women in History – Maria Edgeworth, the Irish Jane Austen

A prolific Anglo-Irish writer of adult and children’s literature, Maria Edgeworth was instrumental in the evolution of the novel in Europe. Many of her works featured the plight of the Irish, women’s issues, politics, and education. A contemporary of Jane Austen, she was also a friend and correspondent of famed literary and economic writers Sir Walter Scott and David Ricardo.

In her early childhood years, Maria spent most of her time with her mother and her mother’s family in Oxfordshire, England. When her mother passed away when she was five, Maria’s father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth married her aunt, (her mother’s sister) and the family moved to Edgeworth’s estate, Edgeworthstown in County Longford, Ireland.

While attending school in London, Maria, at 14 years old, became afflicted with an eye infection. Her father sent for her to return to Ireland, and Maria engaged in helping her father and step-mother with the raising of her younger siblings.

Home-tutored by her father in the study of law, Irish economics and politics, science, and literature, Maria showed much promise as an intellect. She also assisted her father in managing the estate where she would live and write for the rest of her life. Observing the details of daily Irish life, and collaborating academically with her father, Maria procured extensive material for her future novels. Her aunt on her father’s side, Margaret Ruxton of Black Castle encouraged Maria’s writings and supplied her with inspirational material such as the works of Anne Radcliffe and William Godwin.

After the death of his third wife, Richard married Frances Beaufort, a woman one year younger than 30-year-old Maria, and the two women became life-long friends. The family took to extensive traveling, and Maria began her writing in earnest. Her novels celebrated Irish culture and also highlighted the gradual anglicanization of feudal Irish society. In her novels, Maria also articulated education as the key to both individual and national improvement. She believed boy and girls should be educated equally and together, and that women should only marry whom they choose, or not at all.

Maria older yearsMaria was also passionate about Catholic Emancipation, agricultural reform, and improving the living standards of the poor. During the Irish Potato Famine she worked for the relief of the Irish peasants. Her efforts became well-known, and she even procured help and gifts for the poor of Ireland from America.

After her father’s death in 1817, Maria edited his memoirs and then added to them her biographical comments. She wrote until her own death in her eighties.

Even though her works were often criticized for being too moralistic, Maria soldiered on, becoming a prolific author, a defender of women and children, and an early innovator of the literary novel.

 

pencil drawing catherine hayes

Irish Women in History – Catherine Hayes, The Victorian Pop Star

Catherine Hayes (not to be confused with the murderess of the same name) was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1818. Abandoned by her musician father at age 5, Catherine grew up in poverty with her mother and younger sister.

 While singing in the garden one day, the purity of twenty-year-old Catherine’s voice was heard by Edmund Knox, the Church of Ireland’s bishop of Limerick. Impressed by the quality of her voice, he helped to arrange funding to send the girl for vocal training. She and her mother traveled to Dublin where she studied under Antonio Sapio.

In her first appearance, she performed a duet with Sapio at a charitable fundraiser singing O’er Shepherd Pipe from the opera Joan of Arc. That first performance started a whirlwind tour and Hayes traveled to Milan, Marseilles, Vienna, and Venice for the next several years. In June of 1849 she sang for Queen Victoria and 500 of her esteemed guests at Buckingham Palace. So taken by the young soprano, the queen requested an encore. Loyal to the Irish cause, Catherine opted to sing the beautiful Irish rebellion song Kathleen Mavoureen.

 In 1851, Hayes toured America, performing in New York, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, several cities in the American South, and over 40 other locations. The famed showman P.T. Barnum sponsored Hayes’ tour of California, and billed her as “The Swan of Erin.”

With her popularity at its height, Hayes fees to perform averaged around £650 per month, which is equivalent to $84,000 today. When she visited the well-to-do, yet semi-civilized California gold miners in their camps they bid up to £1150 ($167,000) to hear her sing. California had fallen in love with the Swan of Erin. They not only paid top dollar to attend one of her performances, they named a street after her – Kate Hayes Street—in Grass Valley.

Popular and loved across the globe, some historians have dubbed Miss Hayes the “Madonna” of her time.

Dale Evans

Horsewomen in History – Dale Evans and What You Might Not Know About Her

She had four different names.

Born Lucille Wood Smith,  her parents soon changed her name to Frances Octavia Smith. When she started her radio career, she took the name, Marion Lee. In 1930 she changed her name to Dale Evans.

She was way ahead of her time—in more ways than you think.

Evans started her singing career at seven years of age singing gospel solos at church. Bright and more advanced than her classmates, she skipped several grades. She fell in love with Thomas Frederick Fox and married him at 14 years of age. The couple had a child, Thomas Fox, Jr. when she was 15, and she divorced Fox when she was 16.

She raised her son as her “younger brother.”

Back in the day, it wouldn’t do for a woman’s career, especially one is show business to be a mother, much less a young mother. In 1945, after her marriage to R. Dale Butts, Evans acknowledged Thomas as her son.

She appeared in a movie with John Wayne, Old Oklahoma. 

guideposts.com

Evans got her start in radio as a young woman. Her voice and movie star looks led to Hollywood where she signed a contract with 20thCentury pictures. Evans then went on to sign with Republic pictures where she appeared in more movies including The Cowboy and The Senorita. Dale met her fourth and final husband Roy Rogers on the set of that movie.

She never liked being typecast in Westerns.

Evans wanted to appear in musicals. She somewhat got her wish; she appeared in a multitude of musical Westerns.

She didn’t learn to ride until she was 30 years of age.

People assumed because she was from Texas, she knew how to handle and ride horses. She did not until she met Rogers and he taught her to ride on the set of their first movie together. Later in their television show, her favorite side-kick, besides Roy, was her faithful horse–a buckskin quarterhorse named Buttermilk.

 

She was passionate about children and children’s causes.

Dale and Roy had one child together, Robin Elizabeth, who died from Downs Syndrome before the age of two. Besides her son Thomas, Evans and Roy had four more children but adopted them. She and Roy spent endless hours and much of their fortune in devotion to children, especially those “at risk.” They also developed the Happy Trails Children’s Foundation.

She experienced extreme joy and extreme heartache regarding her children.

A devoted Christian and loving person, Evans opened her heart and her home to four adopted children. Having lost her first child to Downs Syndrome, the heartache continued when Debbie, her adopted Korean daughter died at age 12 in a bus accident, and her adopted son, Sandy, died while serving in the army in Germany.

She was incredibly creative and prolific.

With Roy Rogers alone she appeared in 28 feature films. She and Roy produced over 100 episodes of their television show. A devout Christian, Evans wrote and published over 20 inspirational books. And, a talented songwriter, Evans wrote many songs including the theme of their television show, “Happy Trails.”

This post was first published on Kari Bovee’s Equus Plus blog on April 5, 2018

Horsewomen in History – Little Known Selika Laszevski

Selika Laszevski is in fact so little known, many historians question her existence at all.

Selika from The Paris Review
The Paris Review

The portrait here was taken by Felix Nadar in 1891, Paris, France. The photo is thought to be of Lasveski, but it is not certain. Some historians speculate that this photograph was taken of an unknown model and Nadar attached a story to her to promote his work.

Whether fictionalized or not, the story goes that Laszevski was a 19th-century equestrian, an écuyère of the Haute école, or equestrian of the high school of dressage. High school meaning of the highest level in classical dressage–the disciplined “equestrian ballet” that has its origins in the military, going as far back as Xenophon’s On Horsemanship, one of the two works of literature on horsemanship by the Greek soldier Xenophone who lived c. 430 – 354 BC.

Although little is know of this equestrian, a short film has made and produced about her by award-winning writer-director Sybil Mair Sybil Mair. The film titled The Adventures of Salika was released in September of 2017.  It is a coming of age story about an African princess who must forge her own way in the world after being displaced by war. She ends up in France and makes her way to the Haute école.

For more information on the film, click here. 

This post was first published on Kari Bovee’s Equus Plus blog on March 15, 2018

Horsewomen in History – Velma Bronn Johnston

Velma Bronn Johnston knew more about pain and suffering than most of us.

Born to Joseph Bronn and Gertrude Clay in 1912, Velma, at eleven years of age contracted polio and was confined to a cast and hospitalization for several months. The disease left her physically disfigured, and the subject of ridiculing and cruelty by her schoolmates. Velma consoled herself with writing and drawing and taking care of the many animals on her parents’ ranch, the Double Lazy Heart Ranch in Reno, Nevada.

Velma had a particular love of horses, as did her father, who, as an infant came to the West with his parents in a covered wagon. It is said that during the during the arduous journey across the desert, his mother, for whatever reason, could not provide milk for him, so resorted to feeding him the milk of a Mustang mare–an act that saved his life. Later in life, Joseph Bronn, to help support his growing family and keep his ranch in operation, ran a freighting service. Many of the horses he used to pull the wagons were Mustangs.

While many of her peers made fun of Velma for her disfigurement, Charlie Johnston, a neighbor, became smitten with her. The two married and eventually took over Velma’s father’s ranch. To make extra money, Velma took a job as a secretary to insurance executive Gordon Harris and worked for him for the next forty years. Unable to have children of their own, Velma and Charlie also opened their home and ranch to many of Nevada’s youth, where they taught them how to ranch and care for animals.

One day, in 1950 while driving either to or from work, (accounts vary) Velma was following a stock trailer and noticed blood oozing from the bottom of the doors. She followed the truck and found out that the wild horses inside were on their way to a slaughterhouse. The blood came from a young foal who was being trampled to death by the frightened older horses.

During that time period, wild horses, many of them Mustangs, were captured and slaughtered for pet food. Their capture consisted of rounding them up with airplanes, and then once they were in a more cohesive group, trucks would chase them and the men hanging out of the windows or in the bed of the truck would lasso them to the ground. Horses who were more difficult to rope, were sometimes “hamstringed,” or shot in the back of the legs, rendering them unable to run. Then, the perpetrators crammed the frightened animals into stock trailers and took them to the slaughterhouse.

Velma’s witnessing of the gruesome scene as she traveled to or from work instigated her lifelong pursuit to stop the cruelty toward Nevada’s wild horses.

Wild Horse Annie with her dog and horse
Wild Horse Annie with her dog and horse. (Wikipedia)

She began in the early 1950’s and succeeded with the 1955 bill in the Nevada State Legislature that banned aircraft and land vehicles from capturing wild animals on state lands. It was then she earned her nickname, “Wild Horse Annie.” But, Velma had a long way to go. She became a passionate speaker and made it her mission to save wild horses and burros throughout the nation. In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law.

She also established wild horse refuges in the southwest. During the rest of her lifetime, she kept vigilant watch over America’s wild horses and called to task anyone who did not obey the laws she helped put into place. Wild Horse Annie worked hard to promote the idea that wild horses and Burros were “integral to the landscape” and seen as “living symbols of the pioneer spirit of the West.” She came up against many who wanted to silence her, and some even threatened her life, but Velma soldiered on.

After the death of her husband, Annie lived out the rest of her life with her mother. She died at age 65 in 1977 from cancer.

This post was first published on Kari Bovee’s Equus Plus blog on March, 22, 2018

Esther Howland Valentine

Esther Howland – Of Love and Letters

Esther Howland, at age 19, never thought when she received an expensive European paper Valentine from a business associate of her father’s, that she would one day be known as the “Mother of the American Valentine.” 

Esther Howland
mtholyoke.edu

Beautifully decorated with ornate cut-out paper flowers, a lace border, and a small envelope in the center containing a love note, the Valentine card touched Esther in a way that was probably not intended. Whether or not the business associate attempted to court her, or if she accepted his affection, is unknown, but because of Esther’s entrepreneurial spirit, she soon became the first person in history to mass produce what we know today as the Valentine card.

Born in 1828 in Worcester, Massachusetts to Edward Howland, the owner of a successful book and stationary store, and her mother of the same name, Esther Howard, an author, young Esther seemed destined to have a career in the arts and letters. 

After receiving the Valentine from her father’s colleague, Esther liked the idea so much, she asked her father to order the appropriate materials, and she set out to make her own cards. She made about 12-15 prototypes. Her brother, a salesman for their father’s company, added the dozen samples to his inventory and took them on his next sales trip. He returned with more than $5,000 in advanced sales for the charming Valentines. 

Esther Howland Valentine
wikipedia.com

Overwhelmed with the order, Esther recruited friends and neighbors to create one of the first known assembly-lines in business history. She was able to fulfill the orders, and her business was born. Her products, known for their original beauty, and innovative romantic messages, were available for a wide range of prices. More elaborate cards including gilded lace, ribbon, hidden doors, and interior envelopes that allowed for locks of hair or engagement rings, sold for up to fifty dollars. Simpler cards could be purchased for as little a five cents. 

As with any successful venture, there soon appeared competitors vying for a spot in the lucrative Valentine’s Day card market. To distinguish herself from the rest, Esther had her cards made with the stamp of a red letter H on the back of her cards, along with the letters N.E.V. Co, which stood for the name of her business, the New England Valentine Company. It wasn’t long before Esther was having her staff make Christmas cards, New Years cards, Birthday cards, and May baskets.

In 1879, Esther’s company outgrew her home operation, and she moved the business to a factory building. In that same year, she published the “Valentine Verse Book.” The book contained over 130 Valentine verses printed in different colored inks, that could be cut out and pasted to a Valentine card, or adhered over a card’s existing message. 

In 1880, after a tremendous career, Esther sold her company in order to take care of her ill father.  Fifteen years later, in 1904, she fractured her leg and was bedridden. She died within the year. 

Esther, an empowered woman and entrepreneur, saw the seedling of an incredible idea, and then grew it into her own field of flowers, setting an example for women of her era and beyond. She provided a simple yet beautiful way for people to meaningfully express their love and devotion to one another, and she will always be known as the Mother of the American Valentine.