You remember it well, in one of two ways.
Either you were the rare kid who rejoiced when the teacher announced that it was time to make your Valentine’s Day Boxes. You always made yours extra-large because you knew that thing would be stuffed with cartoon “Be Mines.” Or you were like the rest of us: the kid who knew that whatever you got, you got because the teacher said everybody had to get a Valentine. So, you slapped some pink and red construction paper on a box your grandma found on the porch and you called it a day because even then, you knew that love was for suckers.
We should all be glad we live in modern times. Meaning: it could be worse….
Though people who get paid to think about these things say that the Romans combined a bunch of dour old men into one Valentine legend, early Victorians took Valentine’s Day to loftier heights. Think: lace and lavalieres, calling cards, chaste love, and poesy. Swoon.
Every old movie you’ve ever seen about Victorian times should come to mind here, making your bosom swell. Surely, however, in the midst of such lust, it would happen—as it does in modern times—that the attention of someone who was, well, let’s just say “distasteful” might be cast upon a person who didn’t welcome it.
For that, those crafty Victorians had a solution. Starting as early as the 1840s, puckish British and American men and women who just weren’t feelin’ Valentine’s Day could send a “comic Valentine” (later dubbed “vinegar Valentines”) to the one they absolutely didn’t love.
While some vinegar Valentines could be relatively mild in a teasing sort of way, most were meant to be mean, insulting, and mocking, and were meant to be sent anonymously. They were made with the cheapest paper possible, and always featured a cartoon or caricature of some sort that wasn’t very nice (at best) or vulgar (at worst), plus a poem or short zinger, the intent of which was to hammer home the message of “I hate you, go away.”
It wasn’t even like anybody could pretend that a showy envelope held a love letter, either: most vinegar Valentines were postcards or single sheets of paper, so even the mailman knew what was up. Adding insult to injury, the earliest vinegar Valentines came postage-due because postage reforms and cheaper rates didn’t happen until later.
Early Victorians sent them by the hundreds. And then the whole idea spread.
It didn’t take long before vinegar Valentines were made to be given out to offenders in specific positions, say, one for a doctor who charged too much, or a saleslady who acted disrespectfully to a customer. People started personally handing vinegar Valentines to their targets, eliminating the whole idea of anonymity but driving the point home more sharply. When women started fighting for suffrage, there were vinegar Valentines to put them in their place. Teachers fretted that vinegar Valentines were teaching their students the wrong things. Fully half of all the Valentine card sales in America in the mid-1800s were of the vinegar sort.
In 1857, journalists complained that stationers’ windows were missing lace and love, and overflowing with rudeness and insults. By 1871, the postal services on both sides of the pond were tired of the vitriol, but any sort of crack-down was haphazard. In London that year, more than a million Valentines were sent, but officials tried to remove nasty cards from the system.
In 1885, a murder and a suicide were reported, with vinegar Valentines catching the blame. In 1905, more than 25,000 vinegar Valentines were held in a Chicago post office because they were considered too awful to send.
Not quite a century after they appeared—and though you can still find them if you look hard enough—vinegar Valentines lost their popularity. Then as now, a metaphorical slapdown was just as hurtful as a real one. There’s no good way to say, “Don’t Be Mine. Be Someone Else’s.” ▼
Lisa Bitel. “The ‘Real’ St. Valentine Was No Patron of Love.” The Conversation, 13 Sept. 2022.
Becky Little. “Nothing Says ‘I Hate You’ like a ‘Vinegar Valentine’.” Smithsonian Magazine, 10 Feb. 2017.
Crystal Ponti. “Victorian-Era ‘Vinegar’ Valentines Could Be Mean and Hostile.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 10 Feb. 2020.
Natalie Zarrelli. “The Rude, Cruel, and Insulting ‘Vinegar Valentines’ of the Victorian Era.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 13 Feb. 2020.
Terri Schlichenmeyer’s first book, The Big Book of Facts, is available now in bookstores. Her next two are scheduled to appear in bookstores soon.
Image: Vinegar Valentine. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4392844