In the Victorian era, and into the 20th century, lovers exchanged elaborate lace-trimmed cards on Valentine’s Day, expressing their undying love and devotion with sentiments and poems. For those not on good terms, or who wanted to fend off an enemy or unwanted suitor, “vinegar valentines” offered a stinging alternative.

“To My Valentine / ‘Tis a lemon that I hand you and bid you now ‘skidoo,’ Because I love another—there is no chance for you,” reads one card. Another depicts a woman dousing an unsuspecting man with a bucket of water. “Here’s a cool reception,” it warns, telling the “old fellow” that he “best stop away.”

Although Valentine’s Day can be traced to ancient Rome, it’s the Victorians who originally put a romantic spin on the holiday. Valentine’s Day became so popular that postal carriers received special meal allowances to keep themselves running during the frenzy leading up February 14th. Of the millions of cards sent, some estimate that nearly half were of the vinegar variety.

“What are now known as 'vinegar' valentines by 21st century dealers and collectors seem to have their origin in the 1830s and 1840s,” says Annebella Pollen, an art and design historian who authored a paper on vinegar valentines. “This coincides with the growth of valentines as a popular form of communication, assisted by the development of a range of wider phenomena, such as cheap printing and fancy paper production, technologies for the mass circulation of pictorial imagery and the development of advanced postal systems.”

Vinegar Valentines Ranged From Sassy to Cruel

Before they were dubbed vinegar valentines, these sassy cards were known as mocking or comic valentines. Their tone ranged from a gentle jab to downright aggressiveness. There was an insulting card for just about every person someone might dislike—from annoying salespeople and landlords to overbearing employers and adversaries of all kinds. Cards could be sent to liars and cheats and flirts and alcoholics, while some cards mocked specific professions. Their grotesque drawings caricatured common stereotypes and insulted a recipient’s physical attributes, lack of a marriage partner or character traits.

Suffragettes became targets as the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum. “The cards often pointed out moral failings. Perhaps it was hoped in some cases that they would prompt a change in behavior, but in many cases their aim was simply to chide or even to wound,” says Pollen.

According to Samantha Bradbeer, archivist and historian for Hallmark Cards, Inc., two early valentines makers pioneered the manufacture and distribution of cards in Britain and the United States—Jonathan King of London and Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts. “King pioneered decorative lace paper and unusual design using bits of tinsel, feathers and flowers as accents. Howland, inspired by English lace valentines, began making elaborate valentines which sold for as much as $50 each in the 1850s,” explains Bradbeer.

By the mid-19th century, both Britain and the United States had large-scale valentine production systems in place. Insulting valentines expanded on traditional valentines and offered manufacturers an additional source of revenue. Vinegar cards could be cheaply made by printing them on a single paper, folding and sealing them with a bit of wax. That said, Bradbeer adds that many mass-produced cards of the 19th century involved elaborate handwork in their assembly. 

While the U.S. tradition of exchanging valentines didn’t ramp up until after the Civil War, across the pond the valentine craze began in earnest around the same time as postal reform. Britain’s Uniform Penny Post, which allowed anyone in England to send something in the mail for just one penny, went into effect on January 10, 1840. One year later, the public sent nearly half a million valentines. In 1871, London’s post office processed some 1.2 million cards. The number might have been higher, but postmasters sometimes confiscated vinegar valentines, deeming them too vulgar for delivery.

Postal workers were not the only ones rattled by the nastiness of vinegar cards. “There are contemporary accounts from memoirs and newspapers that show that fist fights and court cases, suicide and attempted murder resulted,” says Pollen. The Pall Mall Gazette of London published a story in 1885 about a husband who shot his estranged wife after she sent him a vinegar valentine.

Few Vinegar Valentines Cards Were Preserved

Less is known about insulting valentines than sentimental ones, in part because very few survived. “There are autobiographical accounts that show recipients tore them up and burned them from shame. Most surviving examples are unsent cards found in the collections of printers and stationers,” Pollen explains.

Because they were mailed anonymously, most senders of vinegar valentines faced few repercussions. Adding insult to injury, senders didn’t even foot the cost of postage. “Not only did vinegar valentines contain downright slanderous statements, but they were also sent C.O.D. (cash on delivery) and cost the recipient one penny to read,” says Bradbeer.

As a result of some of the extreme reactions and regular letters of complaint in the press, the cards began to fall out of favor. “Some blamed the card manufacturers for crass profit-seeking, and others blamed the tastes of the newly literate public who could afford these cheap items. 

Whether commercialization or class was the cause of their spread, impassioned pleas to clean up the holiday became more widespread in the later-19th century, Pollen says.

Today, very few Valentine’s Day cards convey such a mean spirit. But Pollen argues a modern-day equivalent for cruel and anonymous jibes exists: the social media troll.