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Not Your Usual Valentines

February 9, 2016 Archive Insight


A Swell Head,” ca. 1855 THF 126861

There is no other day like Valentine’s Day. It is a day in which we are strongly encouraged—by tradition, by our peers, by merchandisers and greeting card manufacturers—to express our positive feelings for another person. Generally, these feelings relate to love, affection, friendship.  Valentine’s Day cards are an easy way to communicate one’s feelings, preventing the sender from having to say these things in person. Often we find—in the plethora of cards available today ranging from humorous to “hot”—that the sentiment written in the card expresses exactly what we want to say better than if we’d said it in person.

Valentine’s Day cards have long served this purpose. During the late 1800s, most of these cards were frilly, draped with images of cherubs, birds, and flower garlands, and dripping with sweet sentimental verses. Intended to be sent to family members or sweethearts, these fit the moral tone and maudlin sentimentality of the era.

Typical sentimental valentine of the era, ca. 1900. THF 113348

But less known today—and rather shocking even to our jaded eyes—was another category of Valentine’s Day greetings from that era. Today we sometimes refer to them as vinegar valentines because of their caustic tone. In their day, they were sometimes referred to as mock or mocking valentines. They were not meant to foster warm feelings of love and affection but to chide, warn, insult—to set recipients straight and relieve them of any notion that their personality or behavior was acceptable.

“A Beau on the Ice…,” ca. 1895 THF 126849

From the 1840s into the early 1900s, these vinegar valentines followed a formula—an exaggerated, often garish cartoon followed by an insulting little verse describing and dismissing someone’s looks, intelligence, personality, or behavior. They varied in tone, from a bit snide and sarcastic to downright offensive. Sometimes they seemed almost threatening, presenting the recipient with an ultimatum to change his or her behavior or else. They could be sent to reject someone’s romantic overtures but they were also aimed at spinsters, henpecked husbands, drunkards, showoffs, brutes, people considered lazy or stupid, and even the underhanded behaviors of people in certain occupations. No one, it seemed, was safe from the possibility of receiving one of these. Furthermore, although women had traditionally been the major senders of Valentine’s greetings, these seem to have been equally sent by both men and women.

“All for Dress,” ca. 1862 THF 126857

Another characteristic that set these Valentines apart from their sentimental counterparts of the era was their price. They tended to be cheaply made, printed on one side of a single sheet of paper. They cost a penny and, when folded over into thirds and sealed with a bit of wax, they saved the cost of an envelope.  Despite their low cost, they seem to have been popular among all social levels. And, although usually sent anonymously—allowing the sender to express his or her feelings without recrimination—some incredibly insulting Valentines have been found warmly inscribed “To My Valentine,” and signed with the sender’s name.

Why did people send these insulting Valentines?  What purpose did they serve?

“A Political Scamp,” ca. 1890. THF 126845

Whether these Valentines seemed comical or hurtful to individual recipients, their larger purpose was to reinforce social norms.  Social norms are the standards by which we live, the shared expectations and rules that guide the behavior of people within social groups.  These shared expectations and rules are learned and reinforced by parents, friends, teachers, coworkers.  Does everyone in your office set their watch around the requisite coffee break? Is it taken for granted that your relatives will hug and kiss each other at family gatherings? Do your neighbors all keep their lawns manicured? In cases like this, don’t you feel pressured into behaving the same way as everyone else? You can be sure that if you’re not doing what everyone else is, people will find ways of making you feel rather like an outcast. This is all part of belonging to a culture and a society. These social norms provide the larger context for these Valentines. Within the atmosphere of a festive holiday, under the cover of humor, senders used these Valentines to critique a person’s behavior when they felt that his or her particular behavior deviated from the norm.

“An Elderly Wheelwoman,” ca. 1895. THF 126853

Some of these Valentines seem utterly offensive to us now. How were they received back then?  Did the recipients laugh, cry, feel incensed, take them to heart? We will probably never know. They seem to have addressed a deep need for people to, in a socially acceptable way, express their honest feelings, no holds barred. This need, whether good or bad, seems to be ever with us as human beings.

Image: “Extremes,” ca. 1890. THF 126851

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.  

20th century, 19th century, Valentine's Day, home life, holidays, correspondence, by Donna R. Braden, archives

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