The Victorian era is remembered for its civility and good manners. Valentine’s Day cards are synonymous with love and affection. Theoretically, that period should have produced nothing but elegant, heart-warming cards that bring out the best from the sender and recipient.
So much for expectations. The supposedly-genteel era gave birth to a phenomenon known as Vinegar Valentines. These popular greeting cards were what you would reach for when you care enough to send the most insulting piece of mail you could find.
Vinegar valentines first saw the light of day in the United States. Initially offered as novelty items, the cards generally included a caricature that emphasized a particular quality of a person, along with a poem to let the recipient know the sender’s feelings about him or her.
The mean-spirited items started appearing in mailboxes in the 1840s. They were the same size and shape as Valentine’s Day cards. Whereas Valentine’s Day cards were luxury items, available to the wealthy, the price of the vinegar counterparts made them accessible to the working class. Printed on just one side, the paper quality and printing process allowed printing companies to sell vinegar valentines for one penny.
Vinegar valentines arrived on the scene at the same time that literacy rates among the poor and working-class were on the rise. They were snatched up by the masses who were finding a voice to express their disapproval of those who flouted their wealth and status.
The first printing companies to offer vinegar valentines were Elton, Fisher, Strong, and Turner. By the 1870s, the popularity of the cards prompted entrepreneurs such as New York printer John McLoughlin and his cartoonist, Charles Howard, to create their own distinct brand of insulting cards. The phenomenon quickly spread to Europe. In the United Kingdom, where class distinctions were institutionalized and less than flexible, vinegar valentines really came into their own. One of the most prestigious firms to produce the cards around 1900 was Raphael Tuck & Sons, the official “Publishers to Their Majesties the King and Queen of England.”
No subject or personal characteristic was off-limits with these cheeky cards. They emphasized such subjects as vanity over age, ugliness, inability to attract a spouse, gossiping, and mean-spiritedness. They insulted the recipient’s occupation, family, and intelligence. There were even cards for breaking off a romantic relationship. They frequently carried the underlying message that no matter how the recipients viewed their appearance or reputation, the reality was that no one liked them and secretly mocked them behind their backs.
In the 21st century, when social media has produced several generations who need never have an unpublished thought, the sentiments expressed by some vinegar valentines still appear to be over the top. In the Victorian era, it is impossible to overstate the reaction they generated. The cards were frequently sent anonymously and causes such an uproar that some postmasters confiscated them before delivery, deeming them unsuitable for passage through the postal system.
Millions of vinegar valentines traded hands, well into the 20th century. They could still be found into the 1950s, but by then, society had either grown more polite, or people found more effective ways to deliver devastating zingers.
See some examples of vinegar valentines in the gallery below.