Sunday, June 23, 2024

What were “vinegar Valentines”?

There were cards that could be used to make fun of your teacher, neighbor, grocer and even the postman at their peak.

It is February 1875. While you’re relaxing on the horsehair couch in the parlor, you hear a faint noise in the foyer. As you walk down the hall you notice it: an envelope that was hidden under the front door. Is that what you think it might be? Grab the letter opener and cut the flap. It’s exactly what it looks like. One of those depraved penny Valentineines. There are a few lines of poetry about your poor social skills, your stringy hair, and your caterpillar eyebrows. These mean-spirited little missives were called many things, including “hit-em hards,” “poison Darts,” and even “vinegar Valentineines.” This last nickname is easy to forget, but they often stung smarter than vinegar, more like carbolic acid.

Nobody knows the inventor of vinegar valentines. The Missouri History Museum displayed its collection of these vile little missives in 1955. Charles van Ravenswaay, then-director of the museum, described them as “masterpieces the grotesque” and gave their time span from the 1840s to the early 20th centuries. They remained for much longer.

In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, toxic valentines could have been sent to anyone. Despise your pharmacist? You should hate your pharmacist.

Newspaper op-eds sections were filled with editorials complaining about the evil and mischief they created, insisting that each year they became more horrible. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed that they caused injuries, murders and suicides in 1908. It noted that comic valentines have become more vulgarized with the advancement in color printing. “If the gentle art and craft of caricature wholesale has been so well developed that one can buy a lampoon fitting almost anyone in private life for one or two dollars, it is probable the authorities should be taken cognizance.” Vinegar valentines certainly kept the local authorities busy.

However, vinegar valentines were hard to find by the end of the 20th century. Although the art form, if it could be called that, has disappeared, it didn’t disappear from human nature. Today we call it trolling.

No Joke

Local papers have documented many funny outcomes for both the sender and recipient of comical valentines over the years.


Mr. J. Rosendahl is a Kneipp disciple. He receives a valentine from the wife. It features a cartoon depicting a “quack doctor” and a chair. Rosendahl then points it at his wife. Rosendahl is released from jail by a friend who owns an alcohol store, but he is not a Kneipp disciple.


Joe Runge sets out to purchase a beer bucket, but upon his return, he discovers that some miscreant had hidden a humorous valentine “reflecting on Runge’s mental and moral attributes.” Runge decides his friend Dick Wellmes is the one rude enough to pull such a trick. However, Wellmes denies it. The two men continue to fight. The fight ends with “Runge Flooring Wellmes” and the beer bucket.

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