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Listen to Susan in this article from NRP affiliate WBUR.org
Three 19th century vinegar valentines are anything but sweet. (First image public domain, center and right Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Three 19th century vinegar valentines are anything but sweet. (First image public domain, center and right Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Love it or loathe it, Valentines Day is upon us. The big business, “Hallmark” holiday brings its annual run on mushy, sentimental cards of the “sugar is sweet, and so are you” variety. But there was a time when people made, sent and received some pretty vicious “vinegar” valentines.

Historian Susan Benjamin dug through vintage newspapers to share this surprisingly harsh chapter from our past. But first, she explained how in the mid-19th century, New Englanders showered all manner of gifts on their sweeties — chocolates, flowers, and — of course — valentines.

“Howland was the mother of the commercialized valentines,” Benjamin said, “But what she didn’t know, and so many others didn’t know, was something else was looming.”

That something else went by a few names, including comic valentines. “But even more to our liking, the vinegar valentine,” Benjamin said. “And it was mean, it was snarky, it was startling, it almost made you cringe — no, I take that back, it did make you cringe.”

An ironic St Valentine's Day ode, circa 1890, to a mercenary milkman who is watering down his milk. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An ironic St Valentine’s Day ode, circa 1890, to a mercenary milkman who is watering down his milk. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I am not attracted by your glitter, For well I know how very bitter. My life would be if I should take You for my spouse, rattlesnake. Oh no! I’d not accept the ring, Or evermore t’would prove a sting.

Kiss-offs like the one above weren’t the only type of vinegar valentine. “It was about people who wanted to get their revenge,” Benjamin said, adding the vexed usually delivered their barbed missives anonymously.

“These were sent to lawyers, and shopkeepers, and teachers, and doctors who gave you the wrong kind of syrup that made you sick,” Benjamin said. She pointed to an example she found published in the Fall River Daily Evening News.

Your pads and pills may cure our ills, but your homely face gives us the chills. 

These insulting poems were often paired with caricature-like illustrations.  Vinegar valentines also targeted braggarts, sots, dandies, rumor-mongers, bachelors, flirts and a broad spectrum of jerks.

Benjamin made clear that not all comic valentines were brutal and venomous. Plenty were simply sarcastic, witty and cheeky. Taken together, they were a wildly popular genre.  “According to the Boston Globe — and this is in 1886 — one factory alone pumped out 15 million comic valentines and a measly 5 million sentimental ones,” she said.

If you’re wondering who penned these nasty notes, Benjamin found another Globe article that attributed authorship to “long-haired poets” who needed to make some money. “By far though, the most influential illustrator of vinegar valentines was a guy named C. Howard,” she said.

Charles Howard worked in Boston and was known as, “the Valentine Man.” Benjamin said he was the artist, and possible writer, behind this cruel creation.

Pray take an honest friend’s advice,
Or you will have to pay the price.
Your idle tongue must cease to wag.
Or it will wear this warning tag.
(The tag reads: By order of the anti-gossip committee).

Women were the primary targets of most vinegar valentines, according to Benjamin. “And the insults are pretty standard,” she said, “I mean, there was plenty about the reasons why one person was an old maid, and that her nose was too big, and nobody ever wanted to talk to her. But some of it was really kind of startling.”

As an example, Benjamin pulled up this little number:

You claim you’re good at anything. 
So come on, show some proof. 
And let me see how good you are 
at jumping off the roof. 

By the turn of the century, suffragettes — those women who fought for the right to vote and to have the same freedoms as men — were pulled into the vinegar valentine fray. Benjamin found cards from haters touting:

Your vote for me, you will not get, I do not want a preaching suffragette.

Some vinegar valentines targeted suffragettes. The valentine on the left was printed in the 1840s, and the valentine on right was printed circa 1900. (Ken Florey Suffrage Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Some vinegar valentines targeted suffragettes. The valentine on the left was printed in the 1840s, and the valentine on right was printed circa 1900. (Ken Florey Suffrage Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Other demeaning ditties were more threatening, “where they were going to take women hostage, they were going to tie them up to chairs so that they couldn’t protest,” Benjamin said. “All sorts of things that made you think these suffragettes were dreading opening their mail.”

But the feminists rallied against their attackers, “and we wouldn’t expect any less,” Benjamin said. The women crafted their own vinegar valentines that were decidedly more high road than low. They featured poppy phrases like, “no vote, no kiss.” The women also created one with a little girl sitting on a heart that read, “I’m a little suffragette, and I don’t care who knows it.”

Throughout their history, people took moral offense to vinegar valentines. Many believed joking on Valentines Day was not a laughing matter because, for them, love was serious.

Benjamin explained how, in its own way, the New England card-making universe helped to eventually take down the vinegar valentine. She invoked Esther Howland again, a single woman who lived with her family in the 1850s and designed romantic, red cards with lace that really took off. They were doing so well that eventually George C. Whitney (also of Worcester) bought her company, and about nine others, Benjamin said. “It’s not really clear how many of those actually were making the vinegar valentines, but what we do know is that his motto was ‘industry, punctuality, and Christianity,’ and the vinegar valentines had to go. “

During their century-long lifespan, newspapers reported vinegar valentines were on their way out, even into the 1950s. “But all through this time,” Benjamin said, “they never went away.”

Here’s one from the 1940s.

You’ve got more curves than a roller-coaster
Your clothes fit like a glove
There’s one thing wrong — Glamour puss
You’ve a face —
Only a mother could love!

Benjamin said today we still have vestiges of vinegar valentines, but their mean-spiritedness evolved, “in that great big envelope that we call social media.”

She hopes no matter how you get your Valentine’s Day messages, that all of them are sweet.

Andrea Shea produced the audio postcard. Susan Benjamin is a food and candy historian who owns True Treats, a history-based candy shop, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.