Written by Nancy Churnin
Illustrated by Monika Róża Wiśniewska
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
In Valentines for All, award-winning author Nancy Churnin sheds light on entrepreneur Esther Howland, a woman in 19th-century Massachusetts who had the keen foresight to sense there was a market in the United States for Valentine’s Day cards. Monika Róża Wiśniewska’s art details how the delicate nature of the cards lent themselves to be custom-made and highly desirable.
Back in the 1800s, women were generally not involved in business. Societal norms meant there were few careers for women outside the home. This picture book biography shows children how Esther broke that mold and persevered. When her father returned from a trip to England with a beautifully handmade Valentine’s Day card to demonstrate his love for her, Esther felt encouraged to pursue making something similar for Americans.
Esther’s handmade Valentine’s Day card business took off with a bang thanks to the financial and sales support from her father and brothers, all in the family business. Before this, “most Americans thought the holiday was a waste of time.” Not only was this venture a success but it continued to thrive for decades. Its peak, perhaps, was during the Civil War when soldiers missed family and their sweethearts. Originally designed to be messages of love, wartime meant that exchanging cards “could ease pain.”
When the demand for handmade cards increased, Esther needed assistance. Another innovation employed by Esther was the assembly line, years before Henry Ford utilized the same approach. She gathered friends and each one was assigned a task to help make the cards efficiently.
In 1866 Esther fell and never fully recovered from her injury. Though she required a wheelchair she kept the business functioning. As time passed, Esther realized there was a need for more than Valentine’s Day cards. Cards could convey remorse, celebrate birthdays, friendship and so much more. These greeting cards filled a gap in the marketplace but with the growth of printing presses, hand-crafted cards were soon replaced by printed ones.
Readers learn in the Author’s Note that Esther eventually merged her business with a competitor’s son and then they sold it entirely in 1880. Esther retired so she could look after her ailing father but surely felt great satisfaction in the meaning her cards had brought to an entire nation.
Backmatter also provides ideas for creating Valentine’s Day card poems and an annual contest to enter.