Business and Labor

The Vinegar Valentine That Ruined a Romance

George Whitney had no use for the nasty greeting card known as the vinegar valentine.

Whitney was the Valentine Czar of the 1890s, and he did not believe in ‘using love’s gifts as a medium for ridicule.’  So when he bought a company that made the vinegar valentine, he halted production of the malicious missives. vinegar valentine old maid poet nypl

The Vinegar Valentine

Dating back to the Civil War, the vinegar valentine cost little and offended mightily. A typical vinegar valentine read,

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 Valentine History

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, Mass. In 1840 he went to Europe to buy products for his employer, and he fell in love with  European valentines. He started making them from home, and his business soon grew into a valentine factory.

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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.

vinegar valentine civil war nyplGeorge 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. One of those, the A.J. Fisher Co., made vinegar valentines. Whitney, who held to the motto “Industry, Punctuality and Christianity,” wanted nothing to do with them.

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.

She had had a beau before Mr. Haggery, she said. She had several, in fact, and there was one she couldn’t stand. He made a bet with a friend that he’d get her in spite of herself.

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. vinegar valentine suffragette nypl

The young man got some love powder and put it on the chocolate drops. She ate them without knowing, 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.

They kept company for a long time. He gave her a broach on a chain for Christmas, and she gave him a cane with a gold top. Then came Valentine’s Day.

Ruined Romance

In those days, said Marie Haggerty, you put a valentine on your sweetheart’s door on Valentine’s Day. Her boyfriend hung a nice, fancy valentine on her door with chocolate drops and rock candy inside.

But he didn’t come around as he should have, she said. So she met him outside and asked him if he was sick. He was so mad he told her 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 always thought Mr. Haggerty had given him the vinegar valentine, but she could never prove it.

Marie Haggerty didn’t reveal what the vinegar valentine said. Perhaps it was this:

Great Lover

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.

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Vinegar Valentines courtesy the New York Public Library. This story about the vinegar valentine was updated in 2020. 

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