Have a Horrid Valentine's Day

What does Valentine’s Day make you think of? Boxes of chocolates? Bouquets of roses? Pledges of undying love? Sure, those are all part of the most romantic holiday on the calendar. On the other hand, from the 1840s into the early twentieth century, Valentine’s Day was also THE occasion to send insulting and downright nasty cards to your circle of acquaintances.

“You Are a Nerve Destroyer” valentine, 1850, from the collection of Strong National Museum of Play “The Butcher” valentine, about 1920, from the collection of Strong National Museum of Play

Somehow those proper Victorians took the tradition of sending sweet, heartfelt Valentine cards and turned it on its head. Comic valentines, also known as “penny dreadfuls” or “vinegar valentines,” made up about half the market for Valentine cards. They were amazingly cheap (and looked it) and could be found in variations to suit just about every circumstance. Your looks, your profession, your personal habits—everything was fair game for ridicule. Courtesy of the United States Postal Service, you could anonymously mock, malign, and generally mistreat anyone who’d ticked you off since last Valentine’s Day.

The museum’s collection includes plenty of pretty and sentimental valentines, but it also has its share of comic ones. Hate how someone sings? Here’s a nice rhyme:

When a pig’s getting slaughtered, the noise that it makes
Is sweeter by far than your trills and your shakes;
And the howling of cats in the backyard by night,
Compared with your singing’s a dream of delight.

Seeking vengeance on your butcher? Try:

You’re greasy as the pork you sell,
And tough just like your beef;
Your customers who know you well,
All hope you’ll come to grief.“Garage Man” valentine, about 1930, from the collection of Strong National Museum of Play

Think your auto mechanic is substandard?

You’re always working on some car,
Its parts you’re always mixing
Instead of the car, we think your head
Quite badly, needs a fixing.

And don’t forget the opportunity to trash that least-favorite teacher:

Some folks go to college and others go to school
To listen to a teacher act just like a fool.
If knowledge is great riches, then you are poor, indeed,
And words of but one syllable are just about “your speed.”

“Teacher” valentine, about 1935, from the collection of Strong National Museum of Play. Gift of Ellen Heidenreich. Whew! I’ve had some less-than-stellar Valentine’s Days in my life, but I’ll count myself lucky that I’ve never been the recipient of comic valentines like these. And if I was ever tempted to send such a nasty note—even anonymously—I’m certain that my butcher would sell me rancid meat or my mechanic would disconnect my brakes! So my helpful Valentine’s Day-shopping hint is to stick to the sweet cards filled with hearts and flowers and leave the nasty ones strictly to the museum’s collection.