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A vinegar valentine from a woman who says she would never marry “a rattlesnake” (1870s) (via Wikimedia)

In the late 19th century, a valentine in the post might not necessarily mean a romantic message from a lover or admirer, it could be a downright acidic insult. Known as vinegar valentines these cruel cards with caricatures and taunting rhymes, sent anonymously, were a wildly popular practice in both England and the United States.

“Pity a Poor Wounded Heart” vinegar valentine, for one who shares their “love with many” (1870s) (via Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums/Wikimedia)

This week Spitalfields Life shared some of these mean valentines from the collection of Mike Henbrey, which were recently acquired by Bishopsgate Institute. “I like them because they are nasty,” Henbrey told Spitalfields Life.

Vinegar valentines are rare, as the receiver likely didn’t want to keep them, and at a penny each they were cheaply made. They were sent to undesired suitors, enemies, even to the postman himself if you thought he was slow and incompetent. Here’s one for a man with bad table manners from a lady put off by his grotesque eating habits:

“I can fancy Cupid’s vagaries,
With many a horrid grin,
Yet hoping for a HEART, my boy,
I merely find a SKIN!
You can play upon an instrument,
As we can plainly see,
Yet my jolly fine bone polisher,
You’ll never play on me.”

Annebella Pollen, lecturer at the University of Brighton, wrote in a blog post for Brighton Museum that these “jibes were inexpensive to buy and even cheaper to send. In the days before stamps, when letters were paid for on delivery, the recipient of such a valentine could have insult added to injury by having to fork out for the privilege of being abused!”

Lisa Hix at Collectors Weekly has an interview with Pollen where she further discusses the historic context of the cards, noting that “toward the end of the 19th century, the enthusiasm for these kinds of cards subsided”:

People blamed the manufacturers, saying it was because Valentine’s Day is being overly commercialized, the same as people now saying that Christmas is being ruined by commercialization. People saw Valentine’s Day as being a noble Christian tradition that had been overtaken by commerce.

Below are a few examples of these wicked cards, with more online at Spitalfields Life.

A 19th-century vinegar valentine (collection of Mike Henbrey, via Spitalfields Life/Bishopsgate Institute)

A 19th-century vinegar valentine (collection of Mike Henbrey, via Spitalfields Life/Bishopsgate Institute)

A 19th-century vinegar valentine (collection of Mike Henbrey, via Spitalfields Life/Bishopsgate Institute)

A 19th-century vinegar valentine (collection of Mike Henbrey, via Spitalfields Life/Bishopsgate Institute)

A 19th-century vinegar valentine for a “nerve-destroyer” (via National Museum of Play)

19th-century vinegar valentine (via Lilly Library, Indiana University)

A vinegar valentine for the “wooden post man” (via British Postal Museum)

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

2 replies on “Vinegar Valentines: The Nasty Anonymous Letters of the Victorian Age”

  1. In today’s hyper-PC world anyone bringing things out like this would be stoned to death by the PC trolls on social media. 🙂 Longing for the good old days of free speech, biting humor and acid pen tipped satire….

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