Vinegar Valentines & Cranky Cupids in the 1800s
Today is Valentine’s Day, a day for sending flowers, chocolates, and lovey-dovey sentiments. But, once upon a time, there was a sinister side to the saccharin day. The underside of the holiday was an opportunity for jilted lovers, lonely hearts, cynics, and cranky cupids to get revenge or declare their less-than-sweet sentiments in rude, crude and exceedingly naughty cards. They were called “Vinegar Valentines” and they were the rage.
The trend started in the 1840s. Why it started then is somewhat of a mystery, but the most prevalent theory is that education and literacy rates were growing among the working class and poor. The lower classes’ more cynical views about life—some might say more brutally realistic—crept into the sacrosanct arenas of love and marriage and interjected cutting humor and satire. Soon the mischief spread to the higher classes, according to valentine authority, Nancy Rosin, President of the National Valentine Collectors Association.
The unflattering cards caused quite a flutter across all social classes. To add insult to injury, the postal service in the mid-1800s required the receiver, not the sender, to pay for postage for cards and letters. So, the recipient paid for the insult, not knowing what was inside until it was too late!
There are also some theories that the social trends of the times fed the popularity of vinegar valentines. Alcoholism was sweeping the nation at epidemic rates in the mid-1800s and after the war, especially among men. Many women were left destitute with children to support with their husbands drinking away the family funds. (This trend was also at the roots of the prohibition and suffragette movements.)
After the Civil War, a significant percentage of the male population had been killed or seriously maimed, which decreased the number of eligible males for marriage. The war’s carnage also fed into opioid epidemics across the country.
Additionally, after the war, women were starting to work in factories and also get educations and exploring freedom beyond the institution of marriage. All these trends resulted in the lowest marriage rates in the nation’s history (up until today’s rates). There were record numbers of unmarried men and women in the second half of the 1800s.
Whatever the reasons, vinegar valentines flourished before and after the Civil War and continued their popularity into the early 1900s. Florid verse usually accompanied shocking caricatures of both men and women as unflattering characters, including snakes, shrews, rats, donkeys (“asses”), floozies, dandies, busy bodies, and on and on. Verses insulted a person’s appearance, intelligence, and occupation. It seems nothing was off limits. And, since the vicious valentines were sent anonymously, there were no social conventions to modulate the insult (just like internet trolls of today).
Doctors were sent valentines calling them “Doctor Sure-Death.” People who dressed well were insulted for their fancy frills and vacuity. Suffragettes and abolitionists suffered special spite for their beliefs and were called unloved and unlovable (among other unprintable descriptors). Suffragettes answered with valentines: “No vote, no kiss!” Bald men were blasphemed. Ample women were abused. Popular men were pilloried. Shy women were shamed. Penny-pinchers were picked at. And the unmarried were mocked. Insults were insidious. Vinegar valentines were sent to bosses, landlords, teachers, salesmen and women, and politicians.
Insults ranged from the vulgar and even violent to more insipid and genteel barbs. One Victorian card insulted the male recipient as “a dissipated weed.” Another criticized a woman’s eyes with the last strange stanza:
I’d sooner marry a giraffe, Hedgehog or porcupine, Than from the female sex select A cod-eyed Valentine.
Vinegar valentines were so popular in 1847 that a major New York valentine publisher enjoyed equal sales between cupid-minded cards and vitriolic valentines. The vile side of the valentine market became so popular that a backlash ensued.
In 1857, The Newcastle Weekly Courant complained that “the stationers’ shop windows are full, not of pretty love-tokens, but of vile, ugly, misshapen caricatures of men and women, designed for the special benefit of those who by some chance render themselves unpopular in the humbler circles of life.”
The cards sometimes instigated social unrest. In 1885, the Pall Mall Gazette reported that a husband shot his estranged wife in the neck after receiving a vinegar valentine that he assumed was from her. Certainly, vinegar valentines spread immense hurt, and memoirs and newspaper accounts from the 1800s indicate they caused fisticuffs, bar brawls, court cases, divorces, suicides, and attempted murders.
The social science and historical documentation of vinegar valentines has not been as well researched as traditional valentines for one main reason: they seldom survived the recipient’s reaction and quickly ended up in the trash or burned.
Many bemoan the divisiveness of today, but it seems Victorians were not that different. Under the cloak of anonymity, Victorians sent insults through the post with impunity. Today, modern-day trolls send them through the Internet. And, in the mid-1800s, many complained that Valentine’s Day had become too commercial. It seemed that love—and hate—had become big business. The more things change, the more they stay the same...
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