The Bizarre Tradition of Vinegar Valentines

a valentine of a dog farting on someone's face

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?

vinegar valentine: 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.

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.

vinegar valentine: “To my valentine, Tis a lemon I hand to you  And bid you now Skidoo  Because I love another  There is no chance for you.”

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: 

a card shows "miss nosey" who talks too much being made fun of

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. 

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

wow!

<p>I just saw a pack of these at an antique mall and was so confused! They were so mean lol. Glad to know the history, people have been subtweeting for a long time.&nbsp;</p>

"I guess she smiles too much?

"I guess she smiles too much? Is that even a thing?"

Yes. The idea that smiling is always good is a modern one. In the past, smiling too much was considered exhibitionistic or overly dramatic. Here is an illustrative quote from a Victorian novel, in which a woman is praised for rarely smiling:

"Critics might call the mouth a trifle large, but the ripe red lips and level white teeth more than covered this defect when she smiled, and that charm was enhanced by some little rarity. Miss Chichester was by no means one of those young ladies who abandon themselves to hysterical laughter on the slightest provocation, or who are wreathed in smiles at the remark that it is a fine day."

I want them!

I absolutely love these!! I personally wouldn't mind still having these in use. Maybe because it would allow me to express my feelings passively at places I can't express them directly, such as my work place. Immature, I know, but it makes me laugh hehe

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