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Vinegar Valentines: The Victorian Tradition of Sending Anonymous Hate Mail

In the late 19th century, Valentine's Day was more than an occasion for lovers to express their love for each other by sending greetings cards and presenting gifts. It was also the day for haters to hurl abuses and insults to those they didn’t love. Known as vinegar valentines, these cards carrying caricatures and satirical rhymes intending to vilify, mock and hurt the recipient was available in stores across America and Europe alongside beautiful valentine cards adorned with hearts and flowers. Often, these cards—both valentine and vinegar—were produced by the same companies.

The cruel tradition first developed in America, possibly in the 1840s and remained in trend for nearly a century. During their long history, some estimate, vinegar valentines made up almost half of all U.S. valentine sales.

The cards were mass produced on cheap paper and usually cost a penny, so even the poor and the working classes—who rarely had the luxury of spending money on gifts—didn’t mind picking up a few to tell that special someone exactly how much they don’t love them. But the cards weren’t restricted to the lower economic classes. They were exchanged freely among all income groups, between neighbors, enemies, as well as friends too. Women sent them to undesired suitors, students to mean teachers, and workers to obnoxious bosses—all anonymously. There was a card for pretty much every insult.

Early vinegar valentines were simple pieces of paper that folded on themselves and sealed with a bit of wax. As a matter of fact, all letters were posted this way because it was more expensive to put a folded object in an envelope. In the very early days, before the prepaid stamp, it was the recipient who paid for the mail. So with vinegar valentines, it meant that the person who received these nasty notes actually paid for the insult, which was doubly insulting.

Even by Victorian standards, vinegar valentines were considered distasteful, vulgar and morally depraving. The press blamed card manufacturers for instigating anti-social behavior and encouraging “a fearful tendency to the development of swearing in males of all ages”, as asserted by the New York Times in 1866. Others complained about Valentine’s day being ruined.

Although the cards were meant to be sent as a joke, there were some people who took the message seriously. In 1885, as reported by London’s Pall Mall Gazette, a husband shot his estranged wife in the neck after receiving a vinegar valentine that he could tell was from her. Another committed suicide after receiving an insulting valentine.

The practice of sending vinegar valentines eventually fell out of favor in the 1940s. By then, the fashion for sending any type of valentines was already on the decline. Some say it was the “facetious vulgarity” that killed it, while others suggest that the tradition died out from a process of natural decay.

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