The Gilded Age valentine-maker did not believe in 'using love’s gifts as a medium for ridicule.' Whitney objected to the mean spirit of the vinegar valentines. Dating back to the Civil War, they were cheap cards that insulted the recipient. Typical of a vinegar valentine was this:
You've got more curves than a roller-coaster
Your clothes fit like a glove
There's one thing wrong - Glamorpuss
You've a face---
Only a mother could love!
Marie Haggerty, a Worcester maiden, knew well of what George Whitney spoke when a vinegar valentine caused her boyfriend to dump her.
Worcester had a long and distinguished history as the center of the U.S. valentine industry. It started with Jotham Taft, a stationer in nearby Grafton. In 1840 he became enamored of European valentines on a buying trip to the continent for his employer. He started making them from home and soon expanded into a valentine factory in New England Village.
Then Esther Howland, called the Mother of the Valentine, started her own valentine business in Worcester after graduating from Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1847. She joined forces with Jotham Taft’s son Edward in 1879, and called the venture the New England Valentine Company.
George Whitney, another Worcester valentine maker, bought out Howland and Taft in 1881. Then he went on a buying spree, snapping up at least 10 valentine makers. For decades, the George C. Whitney Company dominated the valentine business by automating production, selling nationally and owning its own supply chain. (To find out what it was like to work in the Whitney valentine factory, click here.)
What happened to the plates that made the A.J. Fisher Company vinegar valentines? According to one story, Whitney passed them on to another valentine company, McLoughlin Bros.
The Vinegar Valentine
On May 20, 1939, Mrs. Marie Haggerty of 62 Austin Street told the sad tale of the vinegar valentine to Mrs. Emily B. Moore, a Works Progress Administration worker taking oral histories for the Living Lore project:
...You asked me one time if I had any beaux before Mr. Haggerty. Yes, indeed I did, and I had lots of good times, too, and there's one that i couldn't abide, and he made a bet with a friend of his that he'd get me in spite of myself. Well, them days people didn't telephone to make dates and it was hard for a man to see a girl without goin' and ringin' her bell. If I'd see this one at the door, I wouldn't open it and just let him ring. Well, he knowed I was fond of chocolate drops, so he sent me a big box of them and they's all tied up in ribbon. I was so innocent I didn't think anybody'd do anything, but them days they had 'love powder' and if you wanted the love of anyone, why you'd just buy some of the powder and see that they got it somehow. Well, sir, he knowed I couldn't abide him, so he got some of the love powder and put it on the choclate drops. I et them without knowin', and would you believe it, the first thing I knowed, I was thinkin' how nice he was to send me the candy; then I got thinkin' again that he wasn't so bad as I thought, and the next time I went walking with my girl friend, I gave him the parasol sign, and he came right after me, and we walked and talked, and he was a nice fellow after all. I kept company with him for a long time, and at Christmas time he gave me a broach on a chain, and I gave him a cane with gold top, for dudes carried canes them days. Well, we went together until come Valentine day, and in them days, if you loved someone you took a valentine and hung it on your sweetheart's door. I aalways thought Mr. Haggerty had something to do with this, but a body couldn't prove it. My friend put a nice valentine on my door, and it was all fancy, and inside was chocolate drops and colored rock candy. Well, he didn't come around like he should, and I met him outside and I gave him the sign, and he followed me and I asked him if he was sick, but he was so made he said everything. He had gone to his door and got one of the 'penny dreadfuls' (comic valentine) and it made fun of him, and he never let me explain that I didn't send it. Well, I couldn't do anything about that, could I?
She didn’t reveal what the vinegar valentine said. Perhaps it was this:
Hey, Lover Boy, the place for You
Is home upon the Shelf,
Cause the Only One who'd Kiss You
Is...a Jackass like Yourself.
The George C. Whitney Company closed its doors in 1942, unable to continue because of the paper shortage during World War II.
Vinegar Valentines courtesy the New York Public Library.