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Happy Valentine's Day! You're ugly, I hate you, and I wish you were dead

A man examines historic valentines
Max Schulte
Chris Bensch, the chief curator at The Strong National Museum of Play, exams the "vinegar valentines" in the museum's collection.

Rochester, East Avenue, February 1885.

A young woman lounges on her fainting couch in the sitting room, perhaps reading about the dedication of the Washington Monument in the newspaper, when she notices a letter being slipped through the mail slot of her front door.

She dashes to it as quickly as her corset will allow, hoping for a valentine from a secret admirer. Her heart aflutter, she slices open the seal to find not a love missive, but an unsigned so-called “vinegar valentine” depicting a caricature of a hideous woman over a caustic rhyme titled “Simpering Miss.”

The smile on your face appears / Stretching your mouth to meet your ears / You think, no doubt, as sweet as honey / Whereas, dear girl, it’s only funny.

We associate anonymous social mockery with the internet. But mischievous Cupid was about 150 years ahead of the Twitter troll.

Strong Museum of Play

Such mean-spirited valentines were all the rage in the Victorian era, accounting for as many as half of the valentines sold in the United States in some years, according to news reports of the day.

They were known by many names — “hit-’em-hards” and “poison darts” among them — but it was the “vinegar valentine” label that stuck because of the way their sour tones could sting.

“Today we do it every day online, flaming people, saying whatever nasty stuff we want to say,” said Chris Bensch, the vice president for collections and chief curator at The Strong National Museum of Play. “But Valentine’s Day, for some misguided reason, people saw that as the day to really zing people they disliked for any number of reasons.”

Curator holds up some of the valentines in the collection
Max Schulte
Chris Bensch, the chief curator at The Strong National Museum of Play, exams the "vinegar valentines" in the museum's collection.

Many examples of vinegar valentines were lost to time. Not only did they tend to be printed on cheap paper, but who keeps a “valentine” that says they have a face only their mother could love?

But the museum has scores of these depraved valentines in their collection, stored in gray filing cabinets in a cool, dry paper storage room in the bowels of the building. They were amassed by the museum’s benefactor, Margaret Woodbury Strong, although curators assume she collected them like she collected toys, and wasn’t necessarily on the receiving end of them.

But who knows? At the height of their popularity, around the turn of the last century, vinegar valentines could be found for people of all classes and walks of life.

Despise the haughty saleswoman at the dry goods store? There was this:

As you wait upon the women / With disgust upon your face / The way you snap and bark at them / One would think you owned the place.

Have suspicions about your mechanic? Send him this not-so-subtle message:

You’re always working on some car / It's (sic) parts you’re always mixing / Instead of the car, we think your head / Quite badly needs a fixing.

drawing of valentine
The Strong Museum of Play

“It’s a little more articulate, I’ll say, rather than the all-purpose ‘screw you’ kind of insults we give,” Bensch said. “Somebody was paid to write these rhymes.”

Vinegar valentines were in vogue for about 100 years, and sold for anywhere from a penny to five cents, before falling out of fashion in the 1940s. Scholars trace the origin of the practice to the 1830s, but none seems to have been able to pinpoint why the novelty ever began.

The New York Times speculated on the reason in an article in February 1871 on the history of Valentine’s Day:

“Printed valentines are about 140 years old, though it is difficult to discover the exact period when the gentle love words became changed into rather spiteful pasquinades. We suppose some swain was jilted; during the interval of a whole year the fair maid changed her mind, and so he took revenge by sending a biting epigram.”

How biting?

“I think this was pretty bad,” Bensch said as he thumbed through a stack of vicious valentines that targeted everyone and everything, from women thought to wear too much makeup to men who had lost their hair.

Your bright shining pate is seen at all shows / And invariably down in the bald-headed rows / Where you make conspicuous by your tender care / Your true ardent love for that one lonesome hair.

drawing of valentine
The Strong Museum of Play

Many of them sought to keep people in check for deviating from social mores of the times. For instance, several in the collection poke fun at men for shouldering their share of child care, deriding them as “hen-pecked” and effeminate. Others were vicious in their descriptions of women’s physical appearance.

You’ve got more curves than a roller coaster / Your clothes fit like a glove / There’s one thing wrong, Glamorpuss / You’ve a face only a mother could love.

“Some of these, if I got it, it would not just ruin my Valentine’s Day, it would ruin my whole next year to think that this is what people thought of me,” Bensch said. “They’re just downright mean. There’s no other word for it.”

Vinegar valentines did more than ruin days and years. They ruined lives. They were linked to suicides, assaults, and murders in their day.

Consider the fate of Margaret Craig, a house servant on Broadway in New York City, documented by several New York newspapers in February 1847. So stung was she at having received a nasty valentine from a man she believed to be her love interest that she fatally overdosed on laudanum, a tincture of opium commonly used then to treat pain.

In February 1900, the Associated Press carried a story about the death of C.W. Stewart, a grocer in Charleston, West Virginia, who was shot and killed by his 19-year-old son. The son told police he was protecting his mother from his father, who had accused his wife of sending him an offensive valentine.

Perusing the collection at The Strong, one wonders whether Stewart had gotten this missive:

Behold the grocer, the wicked old fraud / We know you’re a fake by your leering / On Sunday in church, you’re pious, oh, Lord / But on weekdays you’re still profiteering / There’s sand in your sugar, you give us light weight, and your jam is adulterated / You don’t sell a thing that is really first grade, like a regular scamp you are rated.

The Strong Museum of Play

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in February 1880 told of a case in criminal court involving two women. “Mrs. Kirchold received two highly offensive valentines, both describing her as a hypocrite, ill-natured, double-faced, and one of them declaring her to be a ‘sure recruit of the devil.’ Mrs. Kirchold suspected the sender was a Mrs. Crawford, whom she subsequently bopped on the nose.

“Whether Mrs. Crawford sent the offensive valentines or not does not appear (in the court papers),” The Eagle reported before editorializing on the subject.

“If she did she was guilty of a very vulgar and despicable action,” the piece went on. “The transmission of insulting and unkind valentines through the mail is, we hope, confined exclusively to the most detestable elements of society. The Eagle sincerely cautions its readers not to degrade themselves by sending these coarse missives and wounding people in the dark.”

It would be 60 more years before the public would heed the advice of The Eagle and the fad came to an end. Of course, it would be another 60 years before people forgot their history and began anonymously slamming each other again, this time on the internet.

“This was that opportunity at that time,” Bensch said. “Thank goodness it was only one day a year rather than every day, 24 hours, like it is now.”

David Andreatta is investigations editor. He joined the WXXI family in 2019 after 11 years with the Democrat and Chronicle, where he was a news columnist and investigative reporter known for covering a range of topics, from the deadly serious to the cheeky.