The Curious Case of Cupid’s Comic Valentines

Written by
Kyle Sherman
Published on
February 4, 2022 8:00:00 AM PST February 4, 2022 8:00:00 AM PSTth, February 4, 2022 8:00:00 AM PST

One hundred and forty-five years ago, at the height of Victorian America’s passion for Valentine’s Day, people recognize the holiday by sending out mass-produced cards. The curiosity for us nowadays is an 1870s valentine is just as likely to profess undying love as it is to insult a person’s looks, intelligence and behavior.


Incredibly popular at the time are “comic” valentines, sometimes referred to as “mock,” “satirical” or “vinegar” valentines. Described as a cheap card with a caricature and an insulting poem or message, folded over and sealed, the address written on the outside and sent through the mail to an unsuspecting recipient, they seem to satisfy the sarcastic nature of Victorian hearts.


Anonymity Made Them Do It

Oftentimes, comic valentines give the observers of a romantic relationship an opportunity to put their two cents in on its merit -without having to reveal themselves. “You have to remember that these cards were sent anonymously,” says Annabella Pollen historian and lecturer at the University of Brighton. “They were meant to say, ‘Your behavior is unacceptable; Change your behavior, or else.’ There’s almost this threatening element to them.”


In her research, Ms. Pollen finds that mock valentines are quite effective at rejecting a recipient’s advances as well as criticizing their faults, from drunkenness and vanity to laziness and stupidity – especially when sent without a signature. Vinegar valentines are inexpensive insults that “deploy the tactics of hiding the sender behind majority opinion. The terms ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘everyone’ appear frequently in the insults, suggesting that the offending vice, whether it be pride, ignorance or hen-pecking, was not only noticed by the anonymous sender, but also by the larger community.” Yikes!


Cupid’s Modern Arrow is True

Many secret admirers still send valentines without a signature, although the fad of insulting someone with a valentine has come and gone. “In the later years of the 19th century, the decline of the fashion for sending valentines of all types was as sudden as its rise,” Ms. Pollen says. “Certainly, despite evidence that the custom for cheeky post continued through Edwardian times and beyond, in the diluted form of the comic postcard and cheap seaside caricatures, the large-scale commercial practice of sending poison-pen letters on St. Valentine’s Day has, thankfully, disappeared.”


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