How Victorians trolled Valentine’s Day

The tradition of giving cards to loved ones on Valentine’s Day in Britain was already established in the 1700s. Handmade billet doux were sent anonymously or hinting at the identity of the lover. By the 1820s, 200,000 valentines were given yearly in London. That number exploded when reforms to the Royal Mail ushered in a uniform rate of one penny to send letters of less than half an ounce from and to any post office in the British Isles. The Uniform Penny Post was introduced in 1840. By the late 1840s, 400,000 valentines were sent annually in London. By the 1860s it was 800,000. The mail was rife with lace, flowers, birdies, cupids and rhymes, motifs still now associated with Valentine’s Day.

Stationers and cardmakers took full advantage of the advent of inexpensive color printing, offering a wide range of valentines for the romance-mad, from ornate cards on expensive textured papers to simpler prints, some serious, some schmaltzy, some goofy. But with the day mired in saccharine sentimentality, bad poetry and even worse attempts at wit, some cardmakers took the opportunity to appeal to a related and woefully underserved market: people who wanted to send anonymous burns for a penny.

Vinegar Valentines were acidic where valentines were sugary, cheap cardstock took the place of fancy lace embosses, crude inking spilled over the lines of ugly caricatures of romantic motifs. One-liners and short poems delivered rejection, spite, insults and mockery, and not just to would-be lovers, but to friends and acquaintances of all categories. In short, they’re great fun.

The Royal Pavilion & Museums in Brighton has a fine collection of these bizarro-world valentines, and thanks to their digital media bank, you can apply their acid as an oddly soothing balm on the wounds inflicted by all the Cupid’s arrows zinging around today.

The Marriage Sucks Burn:

The Barfly burn:

The Nobody Wants You Anyway burn:

The Vanity burn:

The Cupid’s Arrow Misses Its Target burn:

The You’re No Gentleman burn:

The You Old/Ugly burns:

The Emasculating Tease burn:

Happy Valentine’s Day! 👿