In the Victorian era, and also into the 20th century, lovers exchanged elaborate lace-trimmed cards on Valentine’s Day, expressing their supposedly undying love and devotion with sentiments and poems.
But what to do if you didn’t love the person who had set their eyes on you?
For those not on good terms or who wanted to fend off an unwanted suitor, “vinegar valentines” offered a stinging alternative.
“To My Valentine / Tis a lemon that I hand you and bid you now skidoo, Because I love another—there is no chance for you,” reads, for istance, one card, while another depicts a woman dousing an unsuspecting man with a bucket of water. “Here’s a cool reception,” it warns, telling the old fellow that he best stop away.
Although Valentine’s Day can be traced to ancient Rome, it’s the Victorians who continued Geoffrey Chaucer work, putting a romantic spin on the holiday.
Over the years, Valentine’s Day became so popular that postal carriers received special meal allowances to keep themselves running during the frenzy leading up February 14th. And, interestingly, of the millions of cards sent, some estimate that nearly half were of the vinegar variety.
Also called “comic valentines,” these unwelcome notes were sometimes crass and always a bit emotionally damaging in the anti-spirit of Valentine’s Day.
They were commercially bought postcards that were less beautiful than their love-filled counterparts, and their tone ranged from irony to downright aggressiveness. They were sent anonymously, so the receiver had to guess who hated him or her and, as if this weren’t enough, the recipient paid the postage on delivery.
There was an insulting card for everyone, from annoying salespeople and landlords to overbearing employers and people of all kinds. Cards could be sent to liars and cheats and flirts and alcoholics, while some cards also mocked specific professions. Their grotesque drawings caricatured common stereotypes and insulted a recipient’s physical attributes, lack of a marriage partner or character traits.
The women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th century brought another class of vinegar valentines, targeting women who fought for the right to vote. While only a small percentage of mean-spirited cards were devoted to suffragists, they depicted women as ugly abusers. One threw shade on anti-suffragists with the phrase “no vote, no kiss.”
By the mid-19th century, both Britain and the United States had large-scale valentine production systems in place. Insulting valentines expanded upon traditional valentines and offered manufacturers an additional source of revenue.
While the U.S. tradition of exchanging valentines didn’t ramp up until after the Civil War, elsewhere the valentine craze began in earnest around the same time as postal reform. Britain’s Uniform Penny Post, for istance, which allowed anyone in England to send something in the mail for just one penny, went into effect on January 10, 1840. One year later, the public sent nearly a half million valentines. In 1871, London’s post office processed 1.2 million cards.
The number might have been higher, but postmasters sometimes confiscated vinegar valentines, deeming them too vulgar for delivery.
As valentines declined due expensive dinners or gifts, the vinegar valentine became less popular, though in some locations in the 1970s, they were still selling well. Maybe some mourn the romantic February 14 of the past with its long poems and declarations of love but, in any case, it’s also much less likely today we’ll get a nasty note in the mail as a February 14’s surprise.
However, an equivalent for cruel and anonymous messages exists still today: the social media troll.