This is how the Victorians trolled each other on Valentine's Day
Trolling isn’t something that developed in the wake of social media, it’s been around a lot longer than you think; the Victorian’s were masters at it. Despite restrictive moral attitudes and “refined sensibilities” their bullying tactics were exceptional and make modern-day online gibing pale in comparison.
Trolling in the 19th century took a lot more effort than 140 characters and the click of a “tweet” button, it was a cruel and calculated act.
Vinegar Valentines were a type of poison pen letter sent anonymously to ward off potential suitors or to warn another their lover was not all they seemed. Featuring grotesque caricatures and insulting poems these acrid tokens were the very antithesis of traditional Valentine’s cards with their sentimental declarations of love.
They were much cheaper to buy and before the introduction of pre-paid postage the recipient had to pay receive them. As if having one of these drop through your letterbox wasn’t insulting enough, you had to pay for the privilege too! Even after the introduction of postal prepayment, many cards were still sent unstamped.
As well as being sent anonymously between lovers they were dispatched to employers, teachers, neighbours or former suitors. “Many of the verses suggest a collective voice,” says Annebella Pollen, University of Brighton lecturer. “The terms ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘everyone’ appear frequently in the insults, suggesting that the offending vice, whether it be pride, ignorance or hen-pecking, was not only noticed by the anonymous sender, but also by the larger community.”
Vinegar Valentines or “comic Valentines” were also popular in America, though widely frowned upon by the media on both sides of the Atlantic for being “filthy” and “nauseating”. According to the New York times in 1866 they encouraged a “fearful tendency to the development of swearing in males of all ages”.
“Vinegar Valentines were blamed for taking over and ruining a once sacred, romantic holiday,” says Pollen. “It was unanimously observed that the valentine, through commerciality or low humour, had become vulgarised. What is not clear, however, is whether this debasement was a symptom or a cause of its fall from grace.”
The fashion for sending Valentine’s of any kind declined in the later years of the 19th century and though people do still send cards today, the once popular practise of doling out hate mail has thankfully died out.
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