Cupid is Welcome, but Please Hold the Vinegar!

In 1860, the New York Times declared them “vulgar, degrading and filled with indecent impertinence.” It’s hard to believe that these strong words were used to indict, of all things,  Valentine cards. But it’s true; Cupid didn’t always shoot arrows of love.  Throughout most of the late nineteenth century and early 1900s, he often shot caustic barbs and insults in the form of cheaply made cards.


 Dubbed “Vinegar Valentines” or “Penny dreadfuls” they were sent to annoying neighbors,

harsh schoolmasters, slave-driving bosses, unappealing suitors, politicians  and domineering wives.


During the Civil War insulting cards were even  sent to soldiers accused of chicanery, martial posturing or shirking. (Imagine the North and South firing paper insults at one another instead of cannons.)


Vinegar Valentines lampooned everyone, including the Irish, but mostly targeted women and were designed to insult a person’s looks, intelligence and profession. They were usually sent anonymously, but nonetheless provoked fistfights and feuds. To add insult upon injury, the cards were often sent “postage due” forcing the recipient to pay.


As early as 1855, the Joker  advised its readers to “Avoid marring the original observance of the anniversary by sending satirical epistles to those who have been prevented by age or  ugliness from shining in the Court of Cupid.” 


Some cards were so offensive as to be confiscated by postmasters. In the late 1800s the Chicago post office banned 25,000 cards deemed to be “not fit” to send.  


Detroit’s Postmaster Charles C. Kellogg was quoted in the The Detroit News in 1928: “Why, every year, after St. Valentine’s Day, we get angry communications from people who have received these things, asking us to trail down the senders and have them put in jail. Then, too, our carriers are subjected

to a lot of undeserved abuse and rebukes as a result of the so-called comic valentines. Just as though he had anything to do with it!”


One restaurant cook received a vinegar card and, according to her employer, didn’t take it well. He was quoted in New York notes: “Our cook got one [a valentine] that didn’t make her happy one bit. It represented a woman weighing about 1,500 pounds toasting an enormous heart on a kitchen stove…. She isn’t an ill-natured woman either, this cook of ours. But the valentine touched her on a raw spot and she just broke loose and tore around like a mule in a colony of hornets!”


By 1930 hearts and lace finally won out, and insulting floozies, dandies and annoying neighbors became a thing of the past. Today, the only vinegar cards you”re likely to find are on eBay.


So how do you like  your valentines?  Are you a humorous or serious type?  Do you prefer  chocolate, flowers, books, jewelry or something else?



If Molly Hatfield’s purple attire doesn’t blind you, her dazzling smile will.  She doesn’t just sing to the cattle, she puts on a whole show. If only she wasn’t so stubborn about her brother’s care.  Or so distrustful of a certain handsome doctor…




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31 thoughts on “Cupid is Welcome, but Please Hold the Vinegar!”

  1. Omigosh, those vinegar valentines are awful, Margaret. Just plain mean. Glad they’re out of fashion.

    As for my Valentine–I’ll take chocolate, thanks.

    And thanks for a fun blog.

  2. Hi Elizabeth, one of the things I love about researching the past is that it gives me so much hope for the future. Today, people say unkind things to each other on the Internet, but let me tell you: that’s nothing compared to what they said to each other in the past.

    That’s one for chocolate!

  3. I have heard of these valentines. I thought it was traumatic enough not getting a regular valentine from my grade school crush in my “Valentine mailbox” made out of a shoe box.

    So glad nice ones won out!

    Peace, Julie

  4. Can you imagine those poor mailmen sneaking up to a house, tossing the mail at the door and skedaddling before the recipient discovered a vinegar valentine? “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” but vinegar valentines just might! 😉

    Thanks for a fun and enlightening post, Margaret!

  5. Oh my! How interesting. I’ve never heard of vinegar valentines. I’d sure hate to get one. A woman is so vulnerable on Valentine’s Day anyway. That would just do her in. I love the cute funny ones. But my husband gave me some real mushy ones that I treasure to this day. He was quite the romantic. Enjoyed your post and learned something new. Thanks!

  6. I’d never heard of these before…..Go HANG yourself you NUT?

    The sender would probably get sued today.

    Awful and also funny. I wonder how that ever got to be in fashion.

  7. My husband and I have been married a long long long long time. We’re pretty calm about these celebrations.
    I really ought to get him something, shouldn’t I?

    But what?????????? It’s so much easier to ignore it!!!!!!

  8. I would not like to be the recipenent of one of this Vinigar Valentine’s.
    As for Valentine’s Day it will be what ever I want to make it…

  9. My guy knows chocolate had better appear… those Vinegar Valentines just show that people liked to bully throughout time…

  10. I never heard of these Margaret–how fascinating! I love chocolate. When I was a little girl, my dad would go and buy my mom and each of us three girls our own beautiful heart-shaped candy box filled with those delectable chocolates. I have so many pictures of us all lined up on the couch with our “heart box” of candy. Great memories. My hubby is not the least bit romantic, so….I buy my OWN candy now.LOL

  11. Awesome stuff here, Margaret. I always think of Victorian Valentines as just charming, lace-filled and heart-y LOL, so learning about the vinegar ones was great fun.

    I prefer romantic cards to humorous ones, but have yet to get a super mushy one. Sigh.

  12. Tanya, I always thought of Victorians as charming and well-mannered, too. It’s hard to believe that we live in a kinder, gentler world, but it’s true.

    Hope you get a lot of mush on Thursday–and all yeara through.

    Hugs, Margaret

  13. I love humor in my Valentines. Also I love any gift that I could get because I don’t usually get a gift on Valentines day.

  14. I always liked serious valentines, but if it’s apropos, I like funny ones. It’s the one time of the year when I always get flowers from my hubby, so I enjoy them! And he also gives me some kind of chocolate in a heart!

  15. Love the “hoity-toity” lady card! Never heard of this outrage. That is down right hateful stuff. Thankfully the country turned softy in the 30’s. I would be REALLY hurt if I had gotten one of the vinegars.
    But I’m like you, I’ll buy my own chocolate. That way I get the kind I want. My husband (s), have not been that all thinking without a push from the kids.
    Great post.

  16. Jewelry is my first choice! Though, my hubby is more the practical type, than the sentimental type. Now, after so mny years, we usually just go to dinner and call it a night. We love a good meal!!

  17. Thanks for such a fun post, Margaret. But definitely not fun for those receiving a vinegar Valentine. I think I’d rather do without a Valentine at all then one of those lovely sentiments. The poor postmen must have just tossed the card at the door and ran. 🙂

    I like chocolate covered strawberries, but will never turn down a book.


  18. I have never heard of these cards. How terrible. I guess being mean spirited and obnoxious isn’t a new thing. Why someone thinks they have the right to hurt someone that way is beyond me. Like a certain movie critic who felt it was fine to make insulting comments about an actress just because she is heavy, people feel free to attack anyone by tweet, post, or verbally in person. I am so glad the vinegar valentines faded out.
    As for a valentine I would receive, funny is fine, but I prefer the sentimental ones. As far as a gift, we usually go out to dinner, on a night other than Feb. 14. We some times buy chocolate or flowers or a gift. One year my husband got a vacuum cleaner for me. My neighbor was horrified (she is one whose husband had better show up with jewelry). I was thrilled. I NEEDED that vacuum. It makes no sense to fight the crowds to go out to dinner. We will be getting together with our children and their families this coming Sunday to celebrate Valentine’s Day and one daughter’s birthday (the 15th). We just hope the weather cooperates.

    I hope you have an enjoyable and romantic Valentin’s Day.

  19. Hi Patricia, my husband and I went out to dinner once on Valentine’s and that was the end of it. It was crowded, the service bad and just not any fun. One year my husband gave me an electric drill for Valentine’s and I gave him a dress. Whatever works, right?

    Have fun celebrating with your family this weekend!

  20. I loved this Margaret! Thank you for finding those examples and sharing.

    I make a few Valentines each year, and I use vintage Valentines for my focal point and flourish behind and around them.

    My husband is taking the family out for an early dinner, and with our busy schedule and a deadline this week, believe me that’s romantic enough for me.

    I like jewelry and chocolate.

    We have a rule–nothing with a cord. lol

  21. I like to give funny though nice cards – and eat chocolate and steak. This being our 9th Valentines in Nicaragua (we’re missionaries & he always manages our anniversary & heart day here) it means – no red hearts but plenty of rice & beans. Believe me – when we make it back to the states – he has to make up for it!

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