Were Victorian Era Vinegar Valentines hate mail or tough love? They offered a tart or spicy alternative to the sweet flowers-and-lace variety that were so popular at the time.
Their messages ranged from mildly teasing to sharply stinging. Some carried zingers that packed a real punch. Were they the equivalent of modern day hate mail? Were they the predecessors of Internet Trolls and Bullying By Social Media? Or were they simply messages of tough love and good old-fashioned rough play?
Annebella Pollen discovered a treasure trove of Vinegar Valentines when researching a project on love and courtship for the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove. Among the traditional sweet valentines she found these odd pieces in a stationers sample book from 1870.
At the back of the book she discovered 44 cheaply printed, single-sheet, insulting Victorian Era Valentines. Each featured a comic sketch and a few lines of tart verse. A lecturer in art and design history at the University of Brighton, U.K., Pollen, Pollen included these Valentines in the 2008 exhibition titled On The Pull, which is British slang term for pursuing sexual activity.
Vinegar Valentines were produced roughly between the 1840s and early 1900s. (Although we argue that their lineage remains on our Valentine racks to this day.) Generally, these Vinegar valentines were unsigned, allowing the sender to speak without fear.
In her book, The History of Valentines, Ruth Webb Lee estimates that hundreds of thousands of these Vinegar Valentines were sent anonymously over the decades. Many reputable print houses in America and the U.K. were making good profits from the trade.
Recipients were not just significant others. Many of these Vinegar Valentines targeted a larger social circle including butchers, teachers, clerks, neighbors and even surgeons.
They hurled a wide range of mouth puckering messages including rejecting romantic advances to criticizing faults to insulting professions.
Just a few of our favorites:
“You’ve had your day my dear, remember your age if you can, people can see without looking, you’re mutton dressed as lamb.”
“You think you’re a pin-up girl, well that’s right in its way. But the only pinning up you’ll ever do is pinning up nappies all day.”
Some social critics blamed Vinegar Valentines as one reason for a general decrease in morality. An article in the New York Times, February 15 1866 stated that the types of messages delivered in the Vinegar Valentines were one of the reasons for the increase in swearing among males of all ages.
More serious consequences of the insulting cards, included the fatal valentine of 1847. In this case, a woman supposedly committed suicide after receiving a Vinegar Valentine from a man who she believed was interested in her.
Prior to1840, it was often the receiver who paid the postage. Imagine when you realized you paid to receive an insult. On May1, 1840, the Penny Black was instituted. It was the first adhesive postage stamp. It featured Queen Victoria, who was, by the way, a huge fan of both Valentines and Christmas Cards.
We checked the racks of Valentines circa 2016 and guess what? We found plenty of sweet messages with flowers and cherubs. We also found that other section at the end of the rack. There we found edgy modern-day Vinegar Valentines with snarky messages that only certain types of people could appreciate.
We wonder what famous women in history thought about these Vinegar Valentines. Would Nellie Bly have sent one? We think the answer is a resounding yes. Elizabeth Bisland on the other hand would probably stick to the more traditional messages decorated with flowers and birds and edged with lace. What do you think?
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