For decades, Valentine’s Day has given secret admirers an opportunity to confess their love without fear of direct rejection. In the 19th century, it was also perfect for doing the exact opposite: Telling tenacious suitors to leave you alone.
As Smithsonian reports, the Victorian era gave rise to the tradition of sending “vinegar valentines,” scathing, sometimes anonymous cards that revealed people’s usually unspeakable feelings about each other’s disgraceful qualities. Unlike perfume-spritzed Valentines, these weren’t actually doused in vinegar—but the caricature-like illustrations and pithy poems were still enough to make you wrinkle your nose.
One card from the 1870s depicts a grinning woman tossing a bucket of water on a dapper man with the message “It says as plain as it can say / Old fellow you’d best stop away.” Another from the same time shows a red-eyed snake in a dress coat and top hat, paired with this rather venomous poem:
I’m not attracted by your glitter For well I know how very bitter My life would be, if I should take, You for my spouse, a rattlesnake. Oh no, I’d not accept the ring Or evermore ’twould prove a sting.
According to Dr. Annebella Pollen, a lecturer at the University of Brighton, the mass-produced cards were popular in the U.S. and the UK from the 1840s to the early 1900s, and they weren’t only for spurning advances.
“You could send them to your neighbors, friends, or enemies,” she told Collectors Weekly. “You could send them to people you thought were too ugly or fat, who drank too much, or people acting above their station. There was a card for pretty much every social ailment.”
While some of them poked fun at people for relatively trivial qualities like baldness, vanity, or tone-deafness, other cards criticized people for failing to stick to social norms—men, for example, who cared for their children, or academic women who neglected their appearances.
All things considered, it’s definitely good that the trend of telling people to change their behavior by sending them anonymous, vaguely threatening greeting cards has died out. But if you need to give a suitor or two a heavy-handed hint this February 14, there are still some vintage vinegar valentines available on eBay.