My Funny Vinegar Valentine

We didn't need it, but here's yet more proof that the Victorians were an extremely odd bunch

Coming from a society that could think of nothing more festive to put on a Christmas card than dead frogs and robins (seriously), the Victorians' weird tastes in Valentine's cards is not all that surprising. Whether or not you were love-struck, in the mid-1800s, you could be hit by a decidedly sour Valentine's card come February 14th.

The 19th century saw the advent of mass-production, with printed materials now being purchased by all. Unsurprisingly, the greetings cards industry boomed into life in this period, with Valentine's cards sent in their millions by the 1850s.

It seems the Victorians had a printed card featuring small animals, in situations ranging from twee to disturbing, for absolutely every occasion. While their bizarre Christmas cards often tended towards the macabre and memento mori, the custom of sending cheap, single-sheet 'vinegar Valentines' was a bit nastier. These anonymous cards, printed commercially in their thousands, were often used to rebuff unwanted romantic advances — others were just straight-up unsolicited insults!

To add, er, injury, recipients paid for postage themselves upon delivery. Imagine paying your tuppence, innocently hoping for an ardent note from a secret admirer, only to receive one of the following cards! A sour experience indeed.

To make matters worse, it was frequently the outcasts from this famously rigid society, such as alcoholics and spinsters, who were the target of vinegar Valentines. Members of public-facing professions, such as shop girls and doctors, who bore the brunt of their clients' idiosyncratic demands and annoyances, were also targeted by stock insults. Finally, many rather reactionary vinegar Valentines were directed at suffragettes: 'Your vote from me you will not get, I don't want a preaching suffragette!', one boasted in a characteristically snarky tone.

While I usually love all things vinegary and acidic, I'm quite happy we've put this Dickensian ritual to bed. Read more about the fascinating history of vinegar Valentines in this academic paper.

— Beatrix Swanson

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