Monday, 10 February 2020

Vinegar Valentines: 19th Century's Insulting, Anonymous Card-Sending Trend

If you're lucky enough to have a special someone in your life, there's nothing better than giving or receiving a Valentine. Who doesn't like to know that they're the object of someone's affection? On the other hand, just because it's Valentine's Day doesn't mean that everyone is handing out love poems. In the Victorian era, if you had an unwanted suitor, there was a very specific way to get rid of them: a Vinegar Valentine. These nasty cards and unwelcome notes were sometimes crass, always funny, and definitely mean. Anyone who received one of these bad boys definitely got the point.

Vinegar Valentines were insulting in every way

Source: The Strong
It's not just that Vinegar Valentines were rude, which they definitely were. Their entire purpose was to make the recipient feel like scum. The cards were sent anonymously, so the receiver didn't even know who was telling them to buzz off; they just knew that someone hated them. To add insult to insult, the recipient had to pay for the delivery of the card. They weren't just learning that someone in their life thought they were a jerk; they were paying for the privilege.

Just as many Vinegar Valentines were sold as regular Valentines

Source: Royal Pavilion & Museums
You might think that Vinegar Valentines fell out of favor because they were unpopular, but nothing could be further from the truth. In 1847, sales of both kinds of cards were equal, with just as many sweeties finding out about their secret admirers as their horrid counterparts learning that they were social pariahs. Cameron C. Nickels of Civil War Humor wrote that the cards were "tasteless, even vulgar" and that they were most often sent to "drunks, shrews, bachelors, old maids, dandies, flirts, and penny pinchers, and the like." Today, these cards would be seen as slow-motion bullying, but in the Victorian Era, they were a beloved form of rude entertainment.

A lot of people took their Vinegar Valentines to heart

Source: Wikimedia Commons
As you might imagine, these nasty cards hurt a lot of feelings. Not only did they make people feel bad about themselves, a lot of people were physically hurt because of the cards. In 1885, a London man shot his estranged wife in the neck after receiving a card that he knew she sent. Another person committed suicide after receiving one of these anti-love notes. Comparing these cards to modern social media, author Ruth Webb Lee said:
We see on Twitter and on other kinds of social media platforms what happens when people are allowed to say what they like without fear of retribution. Anonymous forms [of communication] do facilitate particular kinds of behavior. They don’t create them, but they create opportunities.

The women's suffrage movement was a major topic of these cards

Source: New York Public Library
One group that caught the wrath of the Vinegar Valentine industry was the women's suffrage movement. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous cards were printed that depicted the women fighting for their right to vote as mean-spirited shrews. One might say these were the worst versions of Vinegar Valentines. It's not clear if the cards were sent to women specifically or if they were just passed around to make fun of the suffrage movement, but either way, they're pretty gross.

The media thought these cards were the downfall of western society

Source: Royal Pavilion & Museums
Whether you think these cards sound fun, mean, or a little of both, the media at the time felt that they were the worst thing to happen to the public since the Plague. People openly worried about the moral implications of anonymously sending nasty messages rather than sweet notes. In 1882, the Globe wrote:
St. Valentine's Day in modern times has sadly degenerated. The days of tender valentine cooings, and flutter-creating billets doux passed. Soft sentiments became things to be ashamed of in these modern times of action and advanced civilization. Perhaps this was not wholly to be regretted, but in its place came the monstrosity of hideous caricatures, beneath which appeared stinging insinuations and anonymous thrusts at the weakness of individuals, and even at defects in limb and feature.

By the 20th century, the cards fell out of fashion

Source: Royal Pavilion & Museums
As the Victorian era waned, so did the popularity of Vinegar Valentines. Media at the time said that the "diffusion of kindlier views of life" were to thank for the change, but people have always enjoyed being mean to one another, so they probably just found a better way to do it. In 1889, the Globe (who must have received plenty of their own nasty Valentines) published an editorial celebrating the end of these cards:
The few stationers who sell them keep them on remote shelves, and dust and yellowness tell of old stock and slow sales. If you have a grudge against your mother-in-law or your wife's nephew then the stationer on the corner will be glad to oblige you with some evil looking posters bearing smart cracks against the in-laws who are eating you out of house and home.
Odd celebrations of the decline of media aside, Vinegar Valentines remained in circulation until the 1950s, although they were hardly as prevalent as they were in the days of the gas lamp.

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