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A brief history of victorian valentines

A brief history of victorian valentines

A more vicious holiday greeting. 

Love may be an impossibly complex emotion, but on Valentine’s Day the assignment feels strikingly simple: take them to dinner, buy them flowers, and definitely get those chocolates in the heart-shaped box. It’s a celebration of love, sure, but not so deep down it’s also a quintessential Hallmark holiday, where the money spent feels almost as important as the sentiment conveyed. 

And yet – love doesn’t hold exclusive rights over Valentine’s Day. Some valentines, in fact, used to contain no sweetness at all, and were actually quite sour – so sour that they were in a category all their own, dramatically defined by a single word: vinegar. 

In the Victorian era, vinegar valentines were sent to ex-lovers, enemies and frenemies alike. Conceived as a way to briefly insult the recipient on a day otherwise defined by love, these cheap little notes were snarky, sarcastic, and down right nasty. Oh, and the cherry on top is just delicious: upon receiving their anti-love note, the addressee actually had to pay for the postage it took to get there. Ouch.

Vinegar valentines hit peak popularity at the turn of the 20th century, when American and British women were fighting for the right to vote. The political polarization of the time is evident in some of the anti-valentines we now find in the archive: many took the opportunity to disparage suffragettes, while, on the flip side, others threatened to withhold love (“no vote, no kiss”). Other frequent recipients included mean retail employees, unsavory suitors, old maids, bachelors, and drunks. A motley crew to be sure, these valentines were abundant, low-cost, and frequently held up at the post office when deemed too vulgar or offensive to send. 

Nowadays, it’s unlikely you’ll come across a vinegar valentine in the mail (and even less likely you’d be forced to pay for it). Valentine’s Day remains squarely in the arena of love, despite this one notable detour 150 years ago. And while we don’t recommend sending mean-spirited notes any time of year, perhaps the story of the vinegar valentine will inspire a little unexpectedness come February 14. At the very least, consider this permission to go off script. 

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