Ideas

Ideas | Tara McClellan McAndrew

When valentines were for haters

Tara McClellan McAndrew/Wikicommons

Anonymous trolling has a long and rich history in the United States. And while the Internet has supercharged the phenomenon, our ancestors had few compunctions about anonymously sending all sorts of bullying missives to their family, friends, and neighbors. . . on Valentine’s Day.

Insulting valentines — or “vinegar valentines” — were popular between 1840 and 1930. Worcester was home to the biggest traditional valentine card makers, while rival New York firms led the way in making the vulgar versions. Competition for mailbox space was fierce.

Vinegar valentines were the antithesis of their flowery, sentimental counterparts. They were often printed on a single piece of paper, and featured rude caricatures and poems that insulted the recipient. Buyers usually sent them anonymously to people “whose behavior was out of synch with the moral order of the times,” says Annebella Pollen, a cultural historian with the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom.

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Take this verse from a card in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester:

Some call you, madam, a female dog,

They err, for you certainly are a whole hog;

Of your piggish charms need I say more.

When your temper is up you’re a bit of a bore.

The devil it’s said once went into the swine,

And none but he will e’er be your Valentine.

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Vinegar valentines tailored their poison for every profession and physical flaw — favorite targets were vanity, obesity, and homeliness. There were cards for all classes — from plumbers, hatters, and tailors to physicians.

In 1847, of the more than 3 million valentines sent, about half were the bitter type intended for “drunks, shrews, bachelors, old maids, dandies, flirts, (and) penny-pinchers,” according to the book “Civil War Humor.”

And just like abusive tweets, these cards weren’t always a laughing matter. Male relatives of women who received these paper daggers sometimes took revenge with weapons, Pollen says. They could also run afoul of the law. “Served Him Right,” declared an 1856 article in an Illinois newspaper about New Yorker Samuel K. Wiley, who had to pay Miss H. D. Durham $600 for libel after he sent her a “dirty valentine” and “allegedly read and expounded (on it) in shops and stores.”

The bullying valentines even proved fatal in some cases. Some were extraordinarily vicious, Pollen says. Their message “in Victorian language was, ‘you’re ugly, you’re disgusting, nobody loves you, throw yourself off a cliff,’ and women did.”

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There were calls for them to be banned on both sides of the Atlantic — and post offices sometimes refused to deliver them. Their popularity waned in Britain by 1900, yet these paper missiles sortied around the United States until at least the 1930s.

Massachusetts played its own part in the craze. “Worcester was the center of the American valentine industry in the last quarter of the 19th century, because the Whitney card company was distributing cards all over the country,” explains William D. Wallace, executive director of the Worcester Historical Museum. “The Whitney company claimed it was the world’s largest greeting card manufacturer” at that time.

The Whitney Valentine Company bought out many of its competitors in Worcester and elsewhere. One was the A. J. Fisher Company in New York, which made vinegar valentines. George Whitney hated the mean cards and the way they “degraded” love’s holiday, but may have sent Fisher’s materials for them to his biggest competitor, New York’s McLoughlin Brothers, according to the book, “A History of Valentines.”

“(Whitney’s) own salesmen had never been encouraged to take orders for (vinegar valentines),” writes author Ruth Webb Lee, “but when deemed necessary, they were made up on order, in as limited a way as possible.”

There are vinegar valentines in the Whitney collection, part of which the Worcester Historical Museum owns, according to Wallace. “The family built the collection for ideas, I’m sure.”

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The McLoughlin Brothers specialized in insulting valentines, writes Barry Shank in his book, “A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture.” In fact, “McLoughlin Brothers created valentines that explicitly mocked the pretensions of workingmen and women.”

Although vinegar valentines’ popularity waned in the 1930s, they didn’t vanish altogether. A 1955 article from The Harvard Crimson noted that they were still on sale in Harvard Square. “You’ve got a dual personality,” one read. “And nobody likes either of them.”

Tara McClellan McAndrew is a freelance writer.