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Valentine | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Happy Valentine’s Day!
Illustration by Maria Cordata (https://creativemarket.com/Tilia)

It’s Valentine’s Day today, and I hope it’s a happy one. May you all have all the love in your life you can possibly hope for!

However, as Atlas Obscura reminds us, today is the day when we are forced to deal with an ugly question: what if you don’t love the person who has set their eyes on you?

Trust the Victorians to come up with an appropriate response: the vinegar valentine. Also called penny dreadfuls or “comic valentines,” these unwelcome notes were the very anti-spirit of Valentine’s Day.

Vinegar What?

Vinegar valentines were commercially bought postcards that were less beautiful than their love-filled counterparts and contained an insulting poem and illustration. They were sent anonymously, so the receiver had to guess who hated him or her. As if this weren’t bruising enough, the recipient paid the postage on delivery.

Some vinegar valentines were playful or sarcastic and sold as comic valentines to soldiers, but many could hold a sting. One vinegar valentine titled “Old Maid” is more than a little harsh:

’Tis all in vain your simpering looks,
You never can incline,
With all your bustles, stays and curls,
To find a Valentine.

Vinegar and Suffrage

The women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th century brought another class of vinegar valentines, targeting women who fought for the right to vote. It is clear from their context that an interest in women’s rights was an inherent part of one’s distorted personality, depicting such women as preachy or ugly abusers. It isn’t known whether these were sent directly to troll women’s rights activists or if they were sent to like-minded friends who disagreed with the movement.

Valentine to a Suffragette | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Valentine to a Suffragette. NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY DIGITAL COLLECTION/PUBLIC DOMAIN, via Atlas Obscura

However, suffragists did have their own pro-women’s rights valentines to pass around on February 14. One threw shade on anti-suffragists with the phrase “no vote, no kiss.” But, in light of the supposed unattractiveness of suffragists according to men, many 19th-century women enticed would-be lovers by sending cards that denied support of the women’s rights cause. One of these cards depicted a pretty woman surrounded by hearts, with a plain appeal:

In these wild days of suffragette drays, I’m sure you’d ne’er overlook a girl who can’t be militant but simply loves to cook.

A Once Booming Business

Valentines and vinegar valentines alike were once a booming business; in 1905 San Francisco, 25,000 valentines were delayed because of overworked clerks. The more surly cards weren’t always welcomed by postmasters, however; another 25,000 valentines were held in a Chicago post office for being unfit to send, due to the many rude and vinegar valentines in the haul.

Valentine to a snake | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Snake of a valentine. VINTAGE CARD, C. 1870 / PUBLIC DOMAIN, via Atlas Obscura

As adult valentines declined in lieu of expensive dinners or gifts, however, the vinegar valentine became less popular. And while some might mourn the romantic February 14 of the past with its long poems and declarations of love, at least it’s much less likely we’ll get a nasty note in the mail as a Valentine’s surprise!

For the full story and more examples of vinegar valentines, check out Atlas Obscura’s full post.

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