For 100 years Valentine’s Day was not only associated with sweet sentiments, but was an occasion to send a cruel and biting message to someone you didn’t like. These cards — called “vinegar valentines” — were popular from 1840 to 1940 in both America and the U.K.
You could send them to your neighbors, friends, or enemies. You could send them to your schoolteacher, your boss, or people whose advances you wanted to dismiss. 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.
Pollen insists that people did send them to one another, albeit anonymously, and they were not meant to be jokes. Instead, they were meant to say: “Your behavior is unacceptable.” For much of the 1800s there was no such thing as a pre-paid stamp, so the person who got the mail paid for it, so often they were forced to buy their own insults, a twist of the knife from the sender.Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.