Valentine’s Day is known as an occasion for exchanging loving sentiments. Whether you send flowers, chocolates, or a handwritten card, these gifts express feelings of adoration for their recipient. But this mode of address has not been immune from more irreverent sensibilities. The Newberry’s newest exhibition, Love on Paper, demonstrates the ways in which the valentine tradition has not always been so saccharine and sweet.
“Vinegar valentines,” or “penny dreadfuls,” represent the darker side of the love-struck holiday. These cards first gained popularity in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. They depicted unflattering caricatures and featured poems and taglines meant to insult or lampoon the recipient. This vinegar valentine from the Newberry’s collection, for example, portrays a couple in a grotesque embrace. It taunts its reader with the bold headline “In Disgustingly Bad Taste!” The card adds acerbic wit to the cartoonish imagery with a short—yet stinging—poem chastising such loathsome displays of affection: “Are you too stupid and senseless to know / That this sort of thing makes a sickening show?”
The method for delivering vinegar valentines bestowed further insult upon its recipient. In the mid-nineteenth century, sending mail by envelope was expensive. Vinegar valentines were printed cheaply and in mass quantities—usually on one side of a thin sheet of paper. Senders would fold their vinegar valentines in half and seal them with wax. At this point in postal history, mail carriers charged postage upon delivery, meaning that the recipient of a vinegar valentine would literally be paying for their own vilification.
This valentine will appear in the Love on Paper exhibition, on display in the Smith Gallery from January 15 through April 4. The exhibition, which is an experiment in crowd-sourced curation, reaches into the depths of the Newberry’s collections to showcase the varied historic representations of love—and love scorned—on paper. The exhibition will feature 13 valentines which, like this one, were generously donated to the Newberry by Andrew McNally III in 1999.
This essay was written by Annie Cullen, Program Assistant for Exhibitions at the Newberry.