On Valentine’s Day, people exchange 150 million cards expressing their gooey sentiments. But in the past, people also exchanged a bizarro version of Valentine’s Day cards: vinegar valentines.
Linking the feast of St. Valentine with a celebration of romantic love originated way back in the middle ages. But recognizing the day by handing out mass-produced cards started in the 1800s. And back then, from around 1840 to 1940, there was a rich tradition of giving someone an unusual kind of card on Valentine’s Day: a cheap card, usually with a crude caricature, that told them something mean. These vinegar valentines were cards that you could buy for one penny and mail anonymously through the post to the object of your discontent.
Instead a secret admirerer, people had a secret despirer.
They often featured absurd caricatures of men with names like “dude” and women named “Floozy” and a poem meant to shame the receiver. There were millions of vinegar valentines printed, with rhyming verses that insulted a people’s looks, intelligence, and behavior.
To add financial insult to emotional injury, in those days, the people receiving mail often had to pay for postage, instead of the person sending it. So these days, we pay the cost of a stamp to send someone a note that says, “I love you.” In the 1800s, a person would have to pay for the honor of being insulted by their mail.
Here’s a vinegar valentine from around 1900. Note that it features a caricature of a woman with huge head and smile stretching from one edge of the card to the other. I guess she smiles too much? Is that even a thing?
In case you can’t read the tiny text at the bottom, here’s what it says:
A Simpering Miss
That smile on your face appears
Stretching your mouth to meet your ears
You think, no doubt, as sweet as honey
Whereas dear, it’s only funny.
Ouch. That seems like a lot of effort to put into telling someone you don’t like their smile.
Here’s another vinegar valentine, meant to help reject a lover.
So why would people so through all the effort of buying and mailing anonymous nasty notes?
Historian Annabella Pollen discussed the trend of vinegar valentines with the magazine Collectors Weekly. In the article “Happy Valentines Day, I Hate You,” Pollen explains: “You have to remember that these cards were sent anonymously. They were meant to say ‘Your behavior is unacceptable.’” For example, several vinegar valentines mock men who have babies on their laps as being henpecked—a card specifically designed to make the man feel emasculated. Other cards have images of women holding rolling pins, threatening their husbands, or being so loud and “unfeminine” that they’re undesirable to men.
Take, for example, Miss Nosey:
It would often not be a person in the relationship sending the cards, explains Pollen to Collectors Weekly, but someone outside the relationship who didn’t approve of their behavior and want them to conform to social norms. “Sometimes they seemed to be saying, ‘Change your behavior, or else.’ There’s almost this threatening element to them.”
These days, our relationships are policed in the opposite way: You better buy something good for your partner on Valentine’s Day, or else you’re a terrible boyfriend or girlfriend. But at least we don’t have to worry about opening up the mailbox and finding a nasty note inside on Valentine’s Day. That’s, uh, reserved for our email inboxes… every day of the year. Modern day haters could at least have the creativity to lodge their complaints in rhyming couplets.
This essay is part of our podcast episode on Valentine’s Day and consumerism, “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media’s online editor.