The sweet and sour of Valentine’s Day cards
Today when we think of Valentine’s Day, we envision beautiful greeting cards filled with sweet expressions of love. These cards are often presented to a loved one along with sweet-smelling red roses and boxes of sugary chocolate. It’s altogether a very sweet affair.
But during the Victorian era there was another kind of valentine greeting which conveyed very different sentiments. Instead of syrupy sweet declarations of love, those cards left a decidedly sour taste in the mouth. Today we call them vinegar valentines – but at the time, they might have been called mocking, comic, or satirical valentines.
Valentine Card Craze
For centuries, Valentine’s Day was a time for putting feelings of love down on paper. Early Valentine messages were handwritten notes decorated with delicate lace and ribbons. Then in the 1800s that all changed. New printing methods made mass-produced cards cheap and abundant. More and more people were able to read and write, which created a larger market for these cards. In addition, the developing postal system meant that cards no longer had to be hand-delivered: they could even be sent anonymously. People started sending each other valentines like crazy.
Victorians thought Valentine’s Day was the perfect time to mock a man for his lack of hair or warn a woman that no one liked her because of her nosiness.
Victorian Vinegar Valentines
The Victorians are known for the value they placed on hard work, politeness, respectability and knowing one’s place. So, you would think their valentine cards would be nice and respectful – and some of them were. Some were beautiful, elaborate declarations of love – but some were very different. The sour, vinegar valentines were even more popular than the sugary-sweet ones. They could range in tone from light teasing to really snarky and mean.
Something for Everyone
Unlike lovely sentimental valentines, the vinegar variety wasn’t necessarily sent to friends and family. There was a caustic card for every person and situation: If a sales lady in one of the shops you frequented was snobbish, there was a card to put her in her place. If the waitress took too long bringing your food, there was one for her too.
Snobby sales ladies and inattentive waitresses: Did they take the “hint” from these valentines?
No One Was Safe
Sometimes vinegar valentines were sent to turn away unwanted amorous attentions. Other times, they just criticized people. Popular targets were henpecked husbands, old maids, nosey women, and arrogant men. There was a card for every occupation including: bakers, dentists, clerks, typists, and the poet who has to earn his living from writing soap ads. No one was safe: The lazy as well as the overachievers were criticized. Those who spent too much were berated along with those who were tight-fisted. Even looks came under scrutiny: If you thought someone was ugly or fat, you could let them know with a valentine.
Authors and readers weren’t forgotten…
For the most part, these malicious mailings were sent by the lower classes of the population. They were cheap, easy to get, and not even cards at all. They were printed on a single thin sheet of paper that was meant to be folded over and sealed.
Adding Insult to Injury
Before the introduction of the postage stamp in 1840, it was the recipient of a letter – instead of the sender – who normally paid the postage fee. So, sometimes, the person on the receiving end of those early vinegar valentines even paid to be insulted.
In Victorian society, these cautionary cards were a way to reinforce acceptable social behavior. They might even have been seen as a kindness – a way to help someone by pointing out a flaw in their character that they could then correct. Cards tended to mock those who didn’t conform to acceptable social norms.
Vinegar valentines are less well known today than their sugary-sweet counterparts. One reason for that is that recipients were much more likely to keep cards that were flattering and beautiful. Most vinegar valentines were probably destroyed as soon as they were read.
If you were looking for a way to tell someone his wife was cheating on him, you could find a valentine to do it for you. If your neighbor’s singing hurt your ears, there was a card for her too.
Dangers and Decline
At least some of these vicious valentines had devastating consequences: In 1847 a woman in New York committed suicide after receiving one such valentine from a man she had thought loved her. In England, a man shot his estranged wife after receiving a vinegar valentine that he thought was from her.
In the later part of the nineteenth century, the press began to call for an end to these Valentine’s Day insults. They blamed the lower classes for polluting the once fine holiday and called on lawmakers to stop those “atrocious and abominable” cards. The post office joined in by declaring it would refuse to deliver “openly offensive matter.” The police even arrested some shop owners for displaying the “indecent and disgusting” cards in their shop windows.
These American cards leave no doubt about the sender’s feelings.
Vinegar valentines had fallen from favor in Britain by the turn of the 20th century, but they remained popular in America until the 1940s. It was the war years that really put an end to the tradition of sending these insulting and reproachful greeting cards. Sweethearts separated by the war sent valentines proclaiming their love for one another, and that is the tradition that has lasted to this day. Thankfully, the vinegar valentines are a thing of the past.
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