There is some great lore about the earliest beginnings of Valentine including how it's connected to an ancient pagan festival known as Lupercalia (it's not) and the tales told of two of the three men possibly responsible for giving us Valentines Day.

But the truth is no one knows why we celebrate Valentines Day never mind who we celebrate it for. Even the church doesn't know, they narrowed it down to three, and considering how popular Valentine was as a name in the fifth century, they could find little proof of which man it's named for, thus removing it from their calendars. 

Calvin and Hobbes Vinegar ValentineCredit: Bill Waterson

Regardless of the who and why, Valentines Day is commonly celebrated with gifts, gestures of romance and romantic words of love. It seems each year more people believe that Valentines Day is overly commercialized and symbolizes a materialistic culture which is clearly shown in the types of gifts given and expected. Even the Valentine card business is big business with at least 180 million being sent annually, second only to Christmas cards.

The sending of a greeting card for the various life events (birthday, get well, mothers day, congratulations) as well as holidays are traditionally seen as meaningful expressions of personal affection. The industry is not worried that the power and simplicity of  the internet and social media sites will diminish the cards purchasing power.

In the early eighteenth century, the Victorian era was having a love affair with greeting cards. the custom of sending a meaningful expression of personal affection was the same as today, with cards, usually. The cards were simple to dazzling, more often than not home-made during the earliest years and some could be considered 'gaudy' by today's standards what with the ribbon, bows, hearts, beads and lace. There were many different styles of early Victorian valentines, including many creative ones: 

  • Acrostic cards contained verses where the first line spelled-out the loved one's name.
  • Pin prick styled cards were exactly as they sound - a needle was used to prick fine holes in paper in such a way as to recreate stylish lace.
  • Puzzle Purse cards  had verses that were hidden in a puzzling fold. In order to read the message on the card one needed to decipher the folds in the correct order as well as refold it.
  • Rebus cards contained romantic words or verses that had words omitted and replaced with pictures. Meant as a riddle they were not as easy to solve as it may sound. 

Cards were not always mass produced and in the earliest of its history - were completely hand-made and subject to the makers idea of a 'great' valentine. The time and effort that went into making these cards must have been hours if not days. Being a recipient of one of these hand made cards showed someone was thinking of you. 

Vinegar Valentine For The BoysCredit: Birmingham LibraryYet underneath this layer of frilly and never-ending love on lace, scented paper was something, that was darker and more sinister, the comic valentine. Despite the use of the word comic, the bulk of these cards were not funny. They were in a way masterpieces of the grotesque; which Victorians seemed to love. Venomous in their humour, rude and spiteful they expressed anything but love. 

Even though the cards aesthetic appearance changed over the years a world of nothing but greeting cards these oft-times caustic 'greetings' are memorable even after all these years.

Comic Cards - Vinegar Valentines

Society sanctioned hate mail

Sometime during the mid-eighteenth century a relatively new style of card started to appear, comic valentine cards. These single sheets of cheaply made paper with a picture. mostly caricature style, with a verse underneath that describes something negative about you, were incredibly popular till the early twentieth century. Comic Valentine Vinegar Valentine CardCredit: The Rose Company, 1907

Mass printed and abundant in numbers there was a card for almost every person, occupation and social situation. No one was immune to receiving one, particularly since they're sent unsigned and no person, social situation or trade is off-limits. 

These cards were essentially a socially sanctioned opportunity to criticize, insult, reject or ridicule someone. And the worst thing is, the receiver of these cards was the one who paid the penny to the mail man to receive it. 

Vinegar Valentine Work EthicCredit: Museum of Play

In its earliest years the verses and caricatures were teasing and light-hearted, but as the years wore on, perhaps to outdo the year before, they progressively became harsher and more vindictive, some even encouraging suicide or slow deaths.

Likely their growing popularity was due to the anonymous nature of the cards which allowed one to say what they were not allowed to say in polite society - no matter how honest an observation was - and not have to explain themselves. These cards can be easily seen as a historical equal to the 'trolls' we see online today. As Chelsea Cain of Let Me Go says:

But people in masks were always a-holes. It was a scientific law. Give someone anonymity and all social niceties break down. The Internet had proven that.[2]

Victorian valentines of Old MaidsCredit: Museum of PlayAccording to the historian, Annebella Pollen, a lecturer in art and design history at University of Brighton, U.K., first discovered Vinegar Valentines when she was researching a project on love and courtship for the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove, the earliest cards she has found date to about 1830s.

SMokers Valentines Day CardCredit: Kosvols

Some historians argue that comic valentines, in the mid-nineteenth century, made up half of all valentine sales. The same companies that printed the love filled, romance promising ones we know today, were the same companies mass producing the 'sour' cards. 

While these were incredibly popular it is not too surprising that many probably do not remain. They're sent to people, usually, of the poor and working class, they had no means to keep them. Frankly I would think a large portion of these cards were torn to pieces once read or used for fire kindling. What we know of vinegar valentines is only a small part. 

Loverboy valentine cardCredit: birmingham MuseumThese historic cards are more than just a glimpse into a mean side of Victorian life - they shed light on our present culture. The connection between bad behaviour and anonymity is not new to the technology age. The impulse to insult people was not created by technology, it is a long standing part of human nature ... card makers simply cashed in on it. 

The anti-valentine trend is starting to be embraced once again by people and greeting card manufacturers, it is not to far off to suspect that vinegar valentines could experience a resurrection. As Annebella explains 

... or perhaps it is because vinegar valentines answer some kind of human need. People need a safety valve, so maybe an insulting valentine card is a good way of letting off some steam. After all, anyone with any sort of critical faculties is going to find some of the sentimental aspects of Valentine’s Day a bit cloying and unpleasant.”[3]

Fat Lady Mean ValentineCredit: Museum of Play

Penny Dreadfuls

Are not cards

In the early nineteenth century, developments in both printing and an increase in literacy rates lead to the production of cheaply made magazine style serials created and mainly purchased by the poor and working class.

The weekly stories were simple yet exciting story lines, some with a focus on adventure others with a focus on gore. They became known as bloods originally, due to the sometimes graphic nature of the serials. It wasn't until later that they became known as penny dreadfuls.

Penny DreadfulsCredit: Dime Store

They sold for only a penny, as novels tended to cost more than they could afford. Hottens Slang Dictionary defined them in 1873

"those penny publications which depend more upon sensationalism that upon merit, artistic or literary, for success". 

The term is also sometimes used to refer to the stories and serialized novels themselves. At no point were they ever connected to greeting cards, post cards or vinegar valentines.

Penny dreadfuls have their own, colourful, history separate from vinegar valentines.