Love Stinks and So Do You: Victorian Valentines Most Vile
Looking at greeting cards through the ages most would agree that no-one does valentines like the Victorians. Their fold-out, pop-up, multilayered confections embellished with flowers, cupids, hearts, doves, children, chariots, animals, etc. continue to set the sugar-coated standard for visual expressions of romantic love. Today's mass-produced greeting cards, even if they’re from Papyrus and cost $9, just cannot measure up.
However, like most things Victorian, there’s a dark side to all this flowery excess, a caustic Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll’s sweet yearnings. I’m talking about vinegar valentines, the dark underbelly to the most rose-coloured of holidays.
So what are vinegar valentines you wonder? Just as their name suggests, they are acidic, pseudo-jokey messages sent instead of the other, sincere kind. They turn the day of love into an expression of judgement and disapproval. Because there always have been, and, sadly, always will be haters out there, there was no shortage of these things stinking up people’s mail boxes.
A vinegar valentine would focus on someone's personal or professional shortcomings and used Victorian social archetypes as its subjects – the hen-pecked husband, the flirtatious woman, the drunkard, the quack physician – in order to send their not-so-subtle messages. Of course, like internet trolls and composers of chain letters, the sender’s identity remained anonymous.
[Text on card:
You often read a symptom wrong,
And never keep a patient long;
But after all – you do your best: –
The undertaker does the rest.]
An insulting verse was accompanied by an unattractive caricature as can be seen in these examples from our Special Collections department on the 5th floor of Toronto Reference Library. This magical combination of insult and injury would then be printed on a single sheet of flimsy newsprint to be purchased for next to nothing by those desiring to send such things.
[Text on card: DOUBLE FACE]
The History of Vinegar Valentines
Annebella Pollen, art historian and lecturer at the University of Brighton, goes into detail about what might have motivated the creation of these un-charming artifacts. The cards were a way to tell someone their behaviour, whether they were a slave to fashion, a little shady in their business dealings or a nagging spouse, was unacceptable. Vinegar valentines reinforced social mores while protecting the sender with anonymity. This anonymity also allowed people to let off a little steam without suffering the consequence of verbally criticizing or attacking someone to their face. In some ways, they were an antidote to the pervading sappiness of the day.
[Text on card:
I see you're selling "Heather Dew",
And making lots of wealth :
If I were a Judge I'd sentence you
To drink the stuff yourself.]
[Text on card:
GO TO SCHOOL
WITH YOUR HAIR
She also suggests that vinegar valentines were purchased and sent mainly by those in a lower economic bracket. As anyone who’s read an Edith Wharton novel will attest to, the upper classes had their own devious means of voicing (without actually saying anything) their disapproval. I guess the admonishment to “use your words” was something so inconceivable, that a complex system of social etiquette based on passive aggression replaced what needed to be said.
Vinegar valentines, on the other hand, show no such restraint. They let the receiver have it with both barrels. Before a regulated postal system and the creation of the one-penny stamp in England, postage was paid by the recipient, so one had to literally pay for the privilege of being insulted.
[Text on card:
And Doesn't Save
the City any
The very first vinegar valentines were, according to Pollen, produced in the 1840s. Their popularity waxed and waned over the years and carried on until around the 1940s. Due to the cheap (and, appropriately enough, acidic) paper they were printed on, and the fact that they would pretty much be tossed into the fire moments after they were received, they are rarer than other greeting cards from the time.
Nowadays most of us stick to the true spirit of the holiday with more romantic gestures. Some, however, take an anti-valentine stance, while those currently single or simply fed up with the excessive commercialism of Valentine’s Day celebrate Singles Awareness Day (or S.A.D.) on February 15. This is actually a real thing observed both privately and publicly through events and get-togethers, and where love of family, friends and one’s self sets the tone.
And speaking of self-love, whether you’re single or part of a double, it’s never a bad time to take a look in the mirror and learn to love the person staring back at you.
As RuPaul often says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
You can amen that by checking out one of these:
The Browsery department on the first floor of Toronto Reference Library is filled with items you can borrow including books and movies with romance as the theme. If you love the traditional Victorian valentines as much as I do, you can see more of them on our Digital Archive along with other types of vintage greeting cards. You can also see the real thing by visiting the Baillie Centre on the 5th floor.
Just remember, no matter how to feel about V-Day...
...the library's got you covered.