Roses Have Thorns, Violets Proliferate: Vinegar Valentines During the Civil War

All was not hearts and flowers for lovers and others during the American Civil War. Sweethearts were separated, families were torn apart, Valentine’s Day was often a sad day of remembrance or longing unless you were of a certain disposition—a snide, sharp, vinegary one, that is. If this was the case, you were probably a sender of the now-infamous Vinegar Valentines.

Vinegars were printed from the middle of the 19thcentury until the middle of the 20th. They were, basically, socially sanctioned snark. They made fun of just about everything, from faint-hearted poetical lads to crazy cat ladies. They poked Civil War surgeons, Secessionists, Zouaves, and flirts. No one was exempt from the barbed humor of the Vinegar.

No, they were not politically correct by today’s standards. They made fun of “Old Maids,” Suffragettes, the unmarried, people who were considered unattractive, and just about anyone who held an opinion contrary to that of the sender. Some are so awful that I cannot put them in this blog! They were racist, misogynistic, and just plain rude. If there were Civil War snowflakes, they would have melted away rather quickly if sent one of these horrid little missives.

Still, one supposes there is always the need for humor, and at least the Vinegars could be sent anonymously—sort of like text bullying, I guess. They seem mean to me even now but they were very popular in both America and Great Britain for almost 100 years. Also known as ‘penny dreadfuls,” these commercially produced postcards were often made by the same companies that made the beautiful, ornate traditional Victorian valentine card. Because the sender could not always be identified, the receiver of such a token was often left in the dark as to who hated him or her.

In Civil War Humor Cameron C. Nickels wrote that vinegar valentines were “tasteless, even vulgar,” and were sent to “drunks, shrews, bachelors, old maids, dandies, flirts, and penny pinchers, and the like.” He added that in 1847, sales between love-minded valentines and these little notes of in-affection were split at a major New York valentine publisher.[1]No one was immune: the beautiful, the ugly, the fat, the thin, the rich, the poor—and just about anyone who served in the Union army. I looked for some Confederate versions of Vinegar Valentines, but apparently, the Chivs were not into throwing shade at politicians, soldiers, or the home front.

These cards are just plain mean. I personally am glad they are not popular anymore, but for those readers who enjoy the occasional politically incorrect prod or poke, laugh away. As for myself, send chocolate and have a happy Valentine’s Day on the 14th of February.

“A Bull-Runner”: “As you pace your lone rounds in the wilds of “Secessia”/My dear little heart forever will bless you/And when the war’s over if you so incline/You may take me and make me your own Valentine.”



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