St. Valentine's Day - Love and Vinegar In The 19th Century
The custom of celebrating St. Valentine’s Day came to America with European immigrants. Handmade valentines were exchanged up until the 1850s until mass-produced cards began to be produced. In this week's instalment we will look at how St. Valentine’s Day was celebrated in the 19th century as as well as looking at cards and newspaper coverage of the time.
I’ve collected a few Valentine’s Day news items from Regency England, Victorian England, and the USA. Some are reminiscent of “lonely hearts” adverts, others are amusing and sweet and, predictably for the Victorians, some are dark and unpleasant.
The first item is from an 1819 edition of Saunder’s News-Letter and was posted by an anonymous gentleman – a self-described “man of the strictest honour” – seeking his missing Valentine.
From the Aurora & Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), February 20, 1829.
"We have been requested to state, for the benefit of this inquiring age, the origin and antiquity of the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day, or St. Valentine’s Eve – a celebration which appears to have experienced such a revival during the last few years in several of our cities and country villages. For the benefit of the ladies, and only for them, have we expended a little research on this highly important subject….
The feast corresponding with our St. Valentine’s Day was called Lupercalia by the Romans. A number of very singular ceremonies were observed by the ancients during that celebration, and many of them were uncouth and barbarous, though congenial to that age. It is said by some writers that Lupercalia was the name given to it, from the circumstance of a wolf being immolated on that occasion. Perhaps in these ancient days they considered a raw bachelor, just looking out for a spouse, as rude and rugged as that animal is known to be in the forest. The bachelors of the present day are, however, as respectable, agreeable, polite, attentive and gallant a set of animals as ever existed. The splendid preparations made for the ladies during the last week, in proving this, does them immortal honour."
Europe had mass produced cards far earlier than the USA. Here is an example from 1830
The Macon Telegraph (Georgia), January 30, 1830 (reprinting an article from the New York Courier) tells us of The Batchelor's Ball.
"We have ascertained the fact that the bachelors are moving around the city and actually making preparations for the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day…. They have positively crawled out of their flannels – trimmed their whiskers – shaved the growth of ages – straightened the vertebrae, and bound them up in cloaks, ten yards wide, to keep the cold weather at a distance during the approaching festival.
We had the greatest difficulty in the world to worm out of these fellows their movements. A love intrigue – a political movement, is as easily plucked out of the steeled hearts of the beau monde, or the costive heads of the politician. Yet we managed the matter to a miracle. It was done in this way. Several of the bachelors got married last summer. They actually went over to the enemy, as they call it in their fantastic language, ‘bag and baggage – scrip and scrippage.’ The awful ceremony of separating the button from the badge was performed before the blushing face of beauty. The committee, clad in the deepest mourning, with white kerchiefs and long faces, assembled on the occasion, and went through the official act with fear and trembling. ‘Have mercy upon us!’ said one shrivelled youth of forty. ‘Don’t spill blood!’ said another. ‘Spare the innocent victim,’ said a third. ‘The very heavens weep a few sad drops,’ said a fourth….
Around the room – or rather the chancel of the temple – were assembled the gay youth, the lovely maiden, the venerable parent, the aunt that writes her nieces’ birth day on the first leaf of the Bible, and the uncle that buys a drum on New Year’s day for his nevey. To them it was amusement and sport. Not so to the poor bachelors. They were losing their comrades by that fell ravager upon single blessedness – matrimony. They cut the button and turned their bleeding brother loose upon the world of nuptial love and blessedness. Yet they entreated the fair conqueror to permit the conquered to remain until their ranks could be filled up with recruits – for there are vacancies in the committee. Out of the abundant goodness of the female heart – the heart which is worth a kingdom, an empire, a continent – nay, the ‘great globe itself – they were permitted to stay on the committee during the present year. Accordingly, we desired a cousin to ask another cousin who had a second cousin who had married one of the committee, to worm out of her husband what the rogues – or as Mrs. Royall would call them – the delightful rascals were about. She coaxed and pleaded … and prayed and scolded…. It was done, and here is the result of her pious labour.
A regular meeting of the committee has been held, and their names called over – their strength mustered and marshalled for next month. A sub-committee has been appointed to taste the ‘wine and WITTLES,’ another to provide the music, another to decorate the ballroom of the City Hotel, another to prepare badges and devices, another to get up tickets and small arrangements. In short, everything is under way, and they are now gallantly marching onward to the ‘eighteenth.’ The beauty and splendour – the neatness and elegance of the occasion are to be of a superior order to any preceding one. We give the ladies fair warning to hold themselves in readiness. The picked youth of the city, such as will make loving husbands, kind fathers, and happy grandfathers, are to be present, if God prosper them. Every useful and elegant attraction will be collected in one choice spot; and every disagreeable banished to the unhappy desert of would-be good society. So the fair, like the ‘gallant Invincibles,’ are requested to ‘make ready."
The Cork Examiner seems to think this advert from 1868 (previously published in an earlier edition) was merely someone being facetious. What do you think?
Laredo Times in Texas printed several personal messages for Valentine’s Day, 1897. They range from the generic to the bizarre. Some of the nicknames are wonderful.
Vinegar Valentines are a peculiarly Victorian phenomenin which has died out. They range from the midly amusing to the downright cruel and were ditributed by both sexes - often to a rejected suitor or a rival-in-love. There was no better way to tell someone they were unwanted and unloved to the 19th century mind than an insulting poem, caricature or poem about the "type" to which the recipient belongs—spinster, floozy, dude, scholar, etc. They enjoyed popularity from the 1840s to the 1940s.
These cynical, sarcastic, often mean-spirited greeting cards were first produced in America as early as the 1840s by a variety of printing companies, including Elton, Fisher, Strong and Turner. By the 1870s, other entrepreneurs such as New York printer, John McLoughlin, and his cartoonist, Charles Howard were creating their own lines of cards. While different European companies also produced the humorous cards in the early 19th century, one of the most prestigious firms to create them around 1900 was Raphael Tuck & Sons, "Publishers to Their Majesties the King and Queen of England."
Sold in the United States and Britain, these cards featured an illustration and a short line or poem that, rather than offering messages of love and affection, insulted the recipient. They were used as an anonymous medium for saying mean things that its senders wouldn’t dare say to someone’s face—a concept that may sound familiar to today’s readers. Scholar Annebella Pollen, who has written an academic paper on vinegar valentines, says that people often ask her whether these cards were an early form of “trolling.”
“We like to think that we’re living in these terrible times,” she says. “But actually if you look at intimate history, things weren’t always so rosy.”
People sent vinegar valentines as far back as at least 1840. Back then, they were called “mocking,” “insulting,” or “comic” valentines—“vinegar” seems to be a modern description. They were especially popular during the mid-19th century, when both the U.S. and Britain caught Valentine’s Day fever, a time talked about as “a Valentine’s craze or Valentine’s mania,” Pollen says. “The press was always talking about this phenomena … These were new, kind of mind-boggling quantities, these millions and millions of cards,” both sweet and sour.
Some warded off unwanted suitors, while others made fun of people for drinking too much, putting on airs, or engaging in excessive public displays of affection. There were cards telling women they were too aggressive or accusing men of being too submissive, and cards that insulted any profession you could think of—artist, surgeon, saleslady, etc.
So specialized were these cards, particularly those sold in the U.S., Shank writes, that they actually “documented the changing shape of the middle classes.” Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, their subjects shifted “from sailor, carpenter, and tailor to policeman, clerk, and secretary.”
And who could blame them? Just as card makers today sell valentines targeted for siblings, in-laws, grandparents, or pets, manufacturers during Valentine’s Day’s heyday saw these insulting messages as a way to make money, and it’s clear that consumers liked what they were selling. According to the writer Ruth Webb Lee, by the mid-19th century, vinegar valentines represented about half of all valentine sales in the U.S.
Not everyone was a fan of these mean valentines. In 1857, The Newcastle Weekly Courant complained that “the stationers’ shop windows are full, not of pretty love-tokens, but of vile, ugly, misshapen caricatures of men and women, designed for the special benefit of those who by some chance render themselves unpopular in the humbler circles of life.”
Although scholars don’t know how many of them were sent as a joke—the someecards of their day—or how many were meant to harm, it is clear that some people took their message seriously. In 1885, London’s Pall Mall Gazette reported that a husband shot his estranged wife in the neck after receiving a vinegar valentine that he could tell was from her. Pollen also says there was a report of someone committing suicide after receiving an insulting valentine—not completely surprising, considering that’s exactly what some of them suggested.
“We see on Twitter and on other kinds of social media platforms what happens when people are allowed to say what they like without fear of retribution,” she says. “Anonymous forms [of communication] do facilitate particular kinds of behavior. They don’t create them, but they create opportunities.”
Compared to other period cards, there aren’t very many surviving specimens of vinegar valentines. Pollen attributes this to the fact that people probably didn’t save nasty cards that they got in the mail. They were more likely to preserve sentimental valentines like the ones people exchange today.
These cards are a good reminder that no matter how much people complain that the holiday makes them feel either too pressured to buy the perfect gift or too sad about being single, it could be worse. You could get a message about how everyone thinks you’re an ass.