When the wishes you strive to send are neither sweet nor charming,
Dose a valentine with vinegar – that’s sure to be alarming!
Drink, gamble, gossip – their worst habit on display,
Rather than disarm, these mean cards are designed to dismay.
When all else fails, human vanity prevails,
Pick a feature to insult and for those tears, fetch a pail!
Please note that the Library does not actually advocate insulting others; this poem is written in jest.
Before cyberbullies and internet trolls, there were vinegar valentines. These insulting cards were sent, often anonymously, instead of sweet tidings on Valentine’s Day. These cards draw on caricature tradition, which use distortions or exaggerations of physical appearance for comedic or satirical effect. The rise of industrial printing processes in the mid-19th century allowed mass-produced cards to replace handmade ones and led to the proliferation of valentines, of both the sweet and vinegar varieties. In the mid-19th century, vinegar valentines represented as much as half of all sales of Valentine’s Day cards in the U.S.1 These mean greeting cards were even known to have led to real-world violence, much like social media bullying today. Some of these cards are sassy and harmless. Some of them are stunningly cruel. However, by viewing the vinegar valentines in the historical context in which they were produced, we can also see areas of social anxiety and change.
Unlike the usual valentines we share, we do not recommend that you send any of these to your friends or sweethearts. A vinegar valentine was even entered into evidence in the Minerva Alice Nulton v. John N. Nulton case in 1900 in the Frederick County Chancery Court to indicate the poor character of the sender. Take note!
Salespeople, teachers, firemen, office workers, taxi drivers, politicians – no profession was safe from being lambasted in these cruel cards.
When women advocated for more political power through voting rights and economic power through jobs outside the home, these cards often worked to reinforce gender norms and attempt to “put women in their place.” Younger women also sought more social freedom by drinking and dancing in public or even driving automobiles – all behaviors that were criticized.
Housewives were also maligned for doing housework all the time, for not doing enough housework, and for not looking attractive while doing housework. They really couldn’t win!
Men were criticized as well – for being short, for being a poor dancer, for drinking beer. They were also mocked for either bluffing about how much money they had or not spending enough on dates. However, being “hen-pecked” might be the worst fate of all!
Physical appearance is perhaps the lowest form of insult, and these cards definitely went there. Sometimes, a facial feature that someone might like about themselves is insulted. Other times, a more obvious difference such as size or age is the target.
Ranging from clever to cruel, these vinegar valentines are certainly not the usual communication associated with this holiday. Cards like this were often meant to be ephemeral and fewer vinegar valentines survive than their sweeter counterparts. Thankfully, this trend subsided by the mid-20th century. For those of us who love a sick burn or social analysis, though, these cruel cards still hold some charm.
In the mood for something sweeter?
All images: Visual Studies Collection, Library of Virginia.
Corrigan, M. (2021, February 12). “When Valentines Were Vicious: A Brief History of the Vinegar Valentine.” CrimeReads. Accessed: https://crimereads.com/when-valentines-were-vicious-a-brief-history-of-the-vinegar-valentine/
Little, B. (2017, February 10). “Nothing Says ‘I Hate You’ Like a ‘Vinegar Valentine’: For at least a century, Valentine’s Day was used as an excuse to send mean, insulting cards.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/nothing-says-i-hate-you-vinegar-valentine-180962109/.
Ponti, C. (2020, February 10). “Victorian-Era ‘Vinegar’ Valentines Could Be Mean and Hostile:
Rather than expressing love and affection, these cards were designed to offend.” History.com. Accessed: https://www.history.com/news/victorian-valentines-day-cards-vinegar
Zarrelli, N. (2020, February 13). “The Rude, Cruel, and Insulting ‘Vinegar Valentines’ of the Victorian Era: Nothing like getting surprise hate mail from a would-be lover on February 14.” Atlas Obscura. Accessed: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/vinegar-valentines-victorian.