Victorian 'Vinegar' Valentines
While love notes and poems have been exchanged on the 14th of February since the 15th century, Valentine’s Day became its own industry with the availability of cheap paper and the advent of the rotary printing press in the 19th century. Valentine’s cards developed a distinct style throughout the 1800s, and their popularity grew with the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840 as cards could be sent quickly for an affordable price. They became so popular that by 1886 the postal services had to ask the public to send their cards earlier to avoid the system becoming overwhelmed. Victorians adorned their cards with lace and trinkets, with some being several centimetres thick due to their decorations (some even included stuffed yellow canaries!)
Jules Chéret produced a selection of cards known as the ‘Language of Flowers’ collection, containing popular Victorian flower symbols which were used to send secret messages. Each individual flower represented a different feeling or sentiment, with popular Victorian books painstakingly describing their meanings. Forget-me-nots were a popular Valentine’s card adornment (its symbolism being self-explanatory), but other flowers used include tulips for passion, roses for devotion, yellow carnations for disdain and rosemary for remembrance. The way flowers were presented to another was also symbolic in Victorian culture; to hand someone flowers with your right hand meant that you were replying “yes”, whereas if the left hand was used the answer was “no”. If the flowers were upside down the sender meant the opposite of what the flower traditionally symbolised, with even the position of the ribbon having its own separate meaning. Fingers crossed the bouquet you received wasn’t wilted!
As Valentine’s cards became increasingly popular, there was a new method of thwarting a suitor’s advances without the need to conceal your intentions with intricate symbolism. The new postal system allowed letters and cards to be sent anonymously, and Victorians took advantage of this to send ‘vinegar valentines’ to their unwanted suitors or enemies. Such cards were printed cheaply, more of a disposable insult than something to be cherished, and amusingly enough the receiver would sometimes have to pay for the postage before the introduction of Rowland Hill’s postal reform.
Vinegar valentines came in a variety of forms, with designs made to insult whoever you wished - wives and husbands, pestering suitors, landlords, employers, alcoholics, old maids, serial flirts, liars and cheaters. They were often presented as caricatures that provide us with an insight into Victorian stereotypes, and most were created to insult the recipient’s character or physical attributes.
Vinegar valentines act as an interesting reflection of Victorian social attitudes, with many of the cards providing an insight into gender relations in the 19th century. As seen below, men could be targeted for not ‘wearing the trousers’ in their marriage, while others cards provide scathing depictions of women defying their ‘social roles’. As the feminist movement gained momentum during the 19th century suffragettes became a particular target of vinegar valentines, with the card below reading “While you make speeches from a broken soap box, Your family is wearing soiled clothes and torn socks”. Miriam Bibby states that suffragettes were not the only women who were seen to defy social norms, but “business women, fashionable women, educated women, ‘girl athletes’ and even those who were just ‘readers of books’ came in for similar abuse”.
While vinegar valentines were seen by some as harmless jokes and insults, they sometimes led to violent consequences. Annebella Pollen states that “there are contemporary accounts from memoirs and newspapers that show that fist fights and court cases, suicide and attempted murder” cases resulted from receiving cards. A particularly brutal card shows an image of an oncoming train, with the verse “Oh miserable lonely wretch! Despised by all who know you; Haste, haste, your days to end –– this sketch The quickest way will show you!”
The Pall Mall Gazette published an article about William Chance, who received a vinegar valentine from his estranged wife in 1895. They were living separately at the time, and Chance was so enraged that he purchased a revolver and shot his wife in the neck, leaving her hospitalised in critical condition.
In the words of Pollen; “to gently chide, to kick in the teeth, to push from a cliff –– insulting valentines could fit every occasion and police every social ill”. It is unfortunate that not many vinegar valentines survived past the Victorian era, as they were cheaply made and usually destroyed by their scorned recipients. The surviving cards are mostly ones that were never sent, which were found in printing presses or stationers. They fell out of fashion near the end of the 19th century due to the reactions they induced, with many complaining that they had dirtied what had once been a romantic holiday. With the rise of the internet it has become a lot easier for people to insult each other, but nevertheless I hope that nobody receives a vinegar valentine today! Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone who wishes to celebrate.
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