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These cynical, sarcastic, often mean-spirited greeting cards were first produced in America as early as the 1840s by a variety of printing companies, including Elton, Fisher, Strong and Turner. By the 1870s, other entrepreneurs such as New York printer, John McLoughlin, and his cartoonist, Charles Howard were creating their own lines of cards. While different European companies also produced the humorous cards in the early 19th century, one of the most prestigious firms to create them around 1900 was Raphael Tuck & Sons, "Publishers to Their Majesties the King and Queen of England."
Cheaply made, vinegar valentines were usually printed on one side of a single sheet of paper and cost only a penny. Novice collectors mistakenly call them penny dreadfuls, although that term in fact refers to a form of potboiler fiction. They often featured garish caricatures of men like the "Dude" or women like the "Floozy." One reason they rapidly became popular throughout America and Europe was because literacy rates were increasing at that time among the poor and working classes who rarely had much more than a penny to spend on such luxuries. But, according to noted valentine authority Nancy Rosin, vice-president of the National Valentine Collectors Association, their use wasn't restricted to the lower economic classes.
The unflattering cards reportedly created a stir throughout all social levels, sometimes provoking fistfights and arguments. Ironically, the receiver, not the sender, was responsible for the cost of postage up until the 1840s. A person in those days paid for the privilege of being insulted by an often anonymous "admirer." Millions of vinegar valentines, with verses that insulted a person's looks, intelligence, or occupation, were sold between the 19th and 20th centuries.
The cards are usually simply a sheet of thin, colored paper, about the size of a modern greeting card. They were later also produced in the form of postcards. They were usually sent anonymously. Postmasters sometimes confiscated these cards as unfit to be mailed and at the end of the 1940s and 50s, the cost of the Vinegar Valentines was five cents.
The cards were first produced in the late Victorian era and enjoyed their greatest popularity in that period and in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Vulgar Vinegar Valentines from 1910
|Bow Legs: "You couldn't catch a pig, and it seems to me your legs were|
warped during hot weather. But one thing, Mr. Wishbone, you need not fear
your knees will never knock together."
|Henpecked Husband: "The way you brag in the saloons you'd think|
you were boss in the house, but at home you wash the dishes and
keep just as quiet as a mouse.
|Miser: "You slave and save and starve yourself and I can't see|
the reason why you've hoarded all those piles of money.
You can't take it with you when you die."
|Saleslady: "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."
|Singer Male: "Your voice has sufficient volume if mere noise is to be your goal.|
I think you'd make a roaring hit on a wagon hollering "Coal"!"