Traditionally, Valentine’s Day in Ontario has meant romance. Community dances in churches or recreation facilities. A cozy dinner prepared at home using tips from the newspaper’s homemaking column. A night out at a favourite local restaurant. The sweet sound of cash registers ringing at candy shops and florists. Backaches for postal carriers delivering a last-minute surge of valentines.
Those cards themselves, though, haven’t always been tender and affectionate. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, buyers flocked to so-called vinegar valentines, cheaply produced cards that, instead of offering messages of love with flowery embellishments, contained unkind comments about the recipient’s appearance and behaviour. Produced in Great Britain and North America from the 1840s through the 1940s, they were usually sent anonymously — today we’d call it trolling. The messages printed on them were often degrading, inflammatory, and misogynistic. “You could send them to people you thought were too ugly or fat, who drank too much, or people acting above their station,” British art lecturer Annebella Pollen told Collector’s Weekly in a 2003 interview. “There was a card for pretty much every social ailment.” They insulted suffragettes, depicted men who took care of housework and child care as emasculated, henpecked wimps.
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“St. Valentine’s Day in modern times has sadly degenerated,” the Globe declared in an article published in 1882. “The days of tender valentine cooings, and flutter-creating billets doux passed. Soft sentiments became things to be ashamed of in these modern times of action and advanced civilization. Perhaps this was not wholly to be regretted, but in its place came the monstrosity of hideous caricatures, beneath which appeared stinging insinuations and anonymous thrusts at the weakness of individuals, and even at defects in limb and feature.” Perhaps revealing just a touch of class snobbery, the paper observed that “many in the lowest classes of society reveled in this barbarous trash and in the opportunities it afforded of gratifying private spite at the expense of the sensitive,” although it did acknowledge that “even those of higher pretentions to mannerliness indulged their spleen after the fashion of their less favourably situated fellow mortals.” The uncredited writer, though, was hopeful that the crude valentines, of which 200,000 had been distributed by a Toronto wholesaler the previous year, would soon see a decline in popularity due to “the advancement of education and the diffusion of kindlier views of life.”
What sort of valentines was the Globe in favour of? It wasn’t opposed to humour of a more wholesome kind. “A poppy prettily printed and coloured appears on the face of the valentine. Raise the poppy and underneath is seen a young man’s face rising out of a shabby collar and half shaven and adorned with unkempt hair. ‘Gone to seed’ is the hidden laconic remark beneath the caricature.”
It was even more impressed by modern versions of traditional romantic valentines. “The most noticeable feature of the advance in art is the introduction of well-executed floral and landscape designs, pressed flowers, ferns, and leaves being used in a not a few instances, and in many hand-painting is oil and watercolours of fanciful sketches and rural scenes.” As for the verses included in tasteful larger cards, they reflected “the dignified reserve which betrays affection rather by purity of sentiment.”
But the best valentines of all, declared the Globe (perhaps somewhat motivated by local pride), were made by Toronto women. Composed of a mix of cardstock and satin, these valentines were “covered with delicate ferns, pansies and other flowers—all real ones—and oftentimes veiled in an ethereal mist of muslin.” The money from these cards, which were up to four inches wide and seven inches long and cost between 75 cents and a dollar, provided spending cash for young ladies.
In an editorial published in 1889, the Globe declared that the vinegar valentines were on their way out. “The few stationers who sell them keep them on remote shelves, and dust and yellowness tell of old stock and slow sales.” But the battle was far from over: the paper continued to complain about their crude comedic tone for another half-century. “If you have a grudge against your mother-in-law or your wife’s nephew,” the Globe observed in 1935, “then the stationer on the corner will be glad to oblige you with some evil looking posters bearing smart cracks against the in-laws who are eating you out of house and home.”
May you receive only the cutest or kindest valentines today.
Sources: the February 16, 1863, February 11, 1882, February 14, 1889, and February 13, 1935 editions of the Globe.
Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters.