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Down with Love: A Brief History of the Vinegar Valentine

"A Professional Scandal Monger," ca. 1840-1910, MdHS, Valentine Ephemera, Series Z.

“A Professional Scandal Monger,” 1840-1910, MdHS, Valentine Ephemera, Series Z.

While rummaging through our Valentine’s Day card collection in a search for long forgotten declarations of love and fidelity, an interesting style of valentine came to light. Among the lacy, pastel-toned confections, we discovered a group of amusing but mean-spirited notes, known as vinegar valentines.

Jokesters during the Victorian era sent these less-than-loving valentines to those they felt needed a reminder of their faults. The nasty notes lampooned every sin from drunkenness and sloth to gossip-mongering and husband hunting. They were generally sent anonymously and caused quite an uproar because of their foul content. The New York Times called purchasers of these valentines “hydra-headed monster[s] who gloat over distorted effigies of human nature and cruel cutting things in rhyme.” Postmasters were known to toss the offensive cards. One postal worker mirthfully recounted several fights that took place in his post office after unsuspecting patrons opened their mail on Valentine’s Day only to discover an unkind note. He described one such scuffle between two women in which the ladies “abandon themselves to an embrace which results in a terrible disarrangement of bonnets, eye-glasses, and other feminine toggery, to say nothing of the utter destruction of the three comic Valentines, two chignons, one blue cotton umbrella, and various other articles now not remembered….”

"Fishing for a Wife," ca.1840-1910, MdHS, Valentine Ephemera, Series Z.

“Fishing for a Wife,” ca.1840-1910, MdHS, Valentine Ephemera, Series Z.

Incidents like this only added to their condemnation. Moralists railed against the uneducated, unwashed masses who purchased such disgusting valentines, when in truth they had pervaded all levels of society. People of all social classes reported both sending and receiving them. It was also widely believed a vinegar valentine caused New Yorker Margaret Craig to take a fatal dose of laudanum after receiving one from a supposed admirer. The veracity of this tragic story was never proven, but it spawned similar rumors and further outraged the anti-vinegar valentine coalition.

Despite the backlash (or maybe because of it), they were quite popular. As one detractor, a “Colonel” Eidolon, so eloquently put it, “comic, indecent, and caricaturing Valentines fly like hail from a wintry sky.” They made up about half the valentine market during their heyday. Their cheap cost and standardized postage allowed upper and lower class pranksters alike to ruin someone’s day.

So, if you just got dumped, blown off, or just plain hate Valentine’s Day, check out these gems from the collection and maybe get a little inspiration for a vinegar valentine to send to a foe of your own. Click the image to enlarge. (Lara Westwood)






Adkins, Milton T. “In a Country Post-Office.” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine 93 (1873):247-251.

Eidolon, Colonel. “Saint Valentine’s Day. Historical and Poetical.” The United States Democratic Review 4 (1855): 68-72.