In the mid nineteenth Valentines Day started to undergo a disturbing transformation. Sure, the syrupy sonnets proclaiming love were still there, along with the de rigueur over priced gifts and cards, but just under that rose tinted surface something terrible was rising up: a wave of hate disguised as love.
Dubbed Vinegar Valentines, these cards took the guise of traditional valentines, but replaced sentiment with twisted vitriol and cutesy pictures with cruel caricatures.
So, I hear you ask, what started this mean spirited valentines revolution?
Changes to the postal service.
Sexy, I know….
In the early Victorian era postage was really expensive, but letter writing was the only way to talk to anyone not in walking distance. Lovers, business contacts, family, friends – all needed to be corresponded to through letters, which cost a bomb.
Many tried to save money by doing things like cross writing. Where you first wrote vertically and then when you ran out of room, turned the page horizontally (at a right angle) and wrote over the letters first part. It may have saved on paper but to our eyes it looks way more like a cipher than any discernible letter (it was a rough time to be dyslexic)
As the era progressed and the number of people able to read and write rose, the fact that much of Britain was priced out of communication became a huge issue. A massive national campaign for affordable post was sparked and by 1840 the battle was won – the penny post was born.
Once postage prices plummeted, Britain went card crazy. The country went from sending 200,000 cards in 1920 to a staggering 1,500,000 by the 1870s.
Valentines cards saw a spike, especially since the amends to the post also meant you could now send cards anonymously. Thus there was a boom in embossed, frilly cards. With some men purportedly saving a months salary so they could send OTT embellished card making confections to their paramours.
But not everyone wanted to spend a months rent on a fancy card, nor did they necessarily want to spread the love.
Printed on cheap paper, crudely coloured and sold for a penny, Vinegar Valentines, were the answer.
Many of these cards were bought as a joke gift to send to a mate, poking fun at something they were self conscious about (e.g their weight, lack of hair or low paying job) which still seems like kind of a dick move, but let’s be generous and file this one away under ‘banter’.
Still, for as many people that used the cards for a fun joke amongst friends, there were others who were excitedly using the fact they could send the cards anonymously to target someone they loathed.
Just have to tell an ex they’re going to die alone? There’s a vinegar Valentine for that. Co-worker you want to knock down a peg? Yep, vinegar valentine for that too. Woman turned you down and now you need to point out all her flaws? Of course, there was a vinegar Valentine for that!
Though there are archives containing Vinegar Valentines, not a great deal survive. Not that surprising, after all whose going to hang onto something designed for personal insult? Much like we hit the delete key today, Victorians threw these vitriolic messages in the bin.
But there’s still so much that we can learn from the surviving cards! And kind of horrifyingly, we can see that not a lot as changed in well over 100 years!
Lesson 1: The majority of the cards were targeted at women.
Drawing from the archives, we can see that there was a mix of genders, but there is a roughly 60:40 split, with women being the focus of the majority. Interesting when you consider that…
Lesson 2: The cards insults drew from people stepping outside of societal norms
Be it physical or lifestyle based, the cards took a shot at it. From being slightly bigger, single at 40 or in a job deemed outside of gender norms.
Lesson 3: Those deemed ‘lower class’ were blamed for the cards. Vinegar Valentines were condemned as morally reprehensible, ripping the fabric of mannered society. So of course, it was those in ‘lower social standing’ who were pointed at as the perpetrators, suggesting that this huge group of people may have fought for the right to communicate but had then used that power to create a harder, harsher world to live in.
And just like with trolling today, Vinegar Valentines had fatalities. In London in 1885 it was reported that a husband shot and killed his wife, after receiving a card that he believed could only have been from her. There were also suicides, with deaths happening shortly after the recipient got the card in the post.
So what happened? Why don’t we still have Vinegar Valentines?
Well… Vinegar Valentines died out.
By the end of the Victorian era they just were not as popular. That’s not to say they disappeared completely, sticking around right up to the early and mid 20th century:
There are a couple of reasons for these cards dying out. The social demonization of the cards didn’t help, especially as many people at the time aspired to one day escape the working classes. Later when the First World War hit, people understandably didn’t really love the idea of using their precious letters to loved ones to send hate.
And of course there is the really schmaltzy reason – given the choice, most people would rather send out love than hate.
- Oh, that and people evolved into finding new and better ways of telling people they hated them.
This was interesting! Where can I find out more? Brighton Unviersity has a great paper on Vinegar Valentines, by Annabella Pollen, which you can download for free here
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