Sometimes it seems as if civility and kindness are in exceptionally short supply today. The Internet liberates a portion of the populace from any standards of decent behavior. As I catch myself lamenting about the dark side of human nature, it helps me to think about Valentine’s Day and bear in mind that bad behavior is nothing new. “What?!” you exclaim, “Valentine’s Day? That day of chocolates and roses for sweethearts? How do snarkiness and insults apply there?” But come with me, back to the Victorian period, and you’ll discover that our forebears weren’t always the saintly paragons we might envision.
Examining valentine history reveals a long tradition of malicious pranks. In the days prior to postage stamps or FedEx, it was the recipient of mail—not the sender—who paid the cost. That situation led to a popular Valentine’s Day prank of sending a box filled with rocks or bricks to someone you disliked. When the recipient anted up the price of shipment for a heavy package, they’d then open the box to discover the weighty and worthless contents. Dissed again!
People without such resourcefulness in pranks could turn to commercial cards that offered the sting of an insulting rhyme attached to an unflattering illustration. By some estimates, these so-called “vinegar valentines” accounted for 50 percent of valentine sales. Anyone with an ax to grind could pick up a comical valentine card targeted at a very particular person—be that a barber inclined to upselling, an overdressed woman, or a lazy salesman—and let them know precisely the nature of their flaws of character or appearance. And of course, these nasty cards were always sent without a signature—a forerunner of Internet anonymity.
Reflecting on our present circumstances, I think it’s probably better that people a century ago or more restricted their anonymous revenge and shaming to a single day out of the year, as odd as it may seem that they chose Valentine’s Day to express their scorn and aggression. Optimist that I am, I can hope that people today return to that earlier tradition and restrict themselves to venting on just February 14. Meanwhile, the pessimistic side of me will hope that my mailbox and inbox stay free from the zing of any vinegar valentines.