On this Valentine’s Day, many people hope to receive an admirer's declaration of love. In the 19th century, cards filled with romantic intentions were popular, but almost as popular were those that came from anti-admirers.
“Vinegar valentines” emerged in the 1840s and featured an illustration and a short poem that, rather than proclaim affection, insulted the recipient. The cards originated in England before spreading to other parts of Europe and the United States. While some cards were all-in-good-fun teasing, others were downright nasty. Some warded off unwanted suitors, while the women’s suffrage movement inspired another class of cards that targeted women who fought for the right to vote. Illustrated with stereotypes such as the scholar, snake, floozy, or spinster, the cards were sent anonymously, allowing the secret hater to say something they would never say to the recipient’s face. To add further insult, the receiver was responsible for the postage.
As it turned out, misery was more profitable than affection. In 1905, 25,000 valentines were held in a Chicago post office having been deemed unfit to send, due to their vinegar nature. By the mid-19th century, valentines of the vinegar variety represented half of all valentine sales in the United States.
The mean-spirited cards did have some redeeming qualities; they were cheaply made and could be purchased for a penny. Their affordability helped to spread literacy to the working-class poor. As trends shifted away from cards in favor of other gifts, the vinegar valentine declined in popularity. Today, the cards are popular collector’s items. Compared to other period cards, fewer vinegar valentines survive, possibly due to the fact that people were less likely to save the nasty cards than the sentimental valentines that we exchange today.