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.

Dear, I don’t see how you can live in such a cold place.

Whitney was the Valentine Czar of the 1890s, and he did not believe in ‘using love’s gifts as a medium for ridicule.’ 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!

When George Whitney began buying valentine companies, vinegar valentines had been around for 50 years. Whitney tried to put a stop to them.

Plenty of people had reason to thank him. Unfortunately for Marie Haggerty, Whitney didn’t stomp them out completely.

The Vinegar Valentine

Vinegar valentines began in the 1840s in Victorian England. The nasty little postcards cost little and offended mightily. Widely available, they generally sold for a penny apiece. And to add injury to insult, the recipient had to pay the postage during the early days of the vinegar valentine.

People sent them to dissuade unwanted suitors. Though sent anonymously, the recipient of a valentine like this could probably figure out who it came from. And no one could mistake the intent of the message.

I’m not attracted by your glitter
For well I know how very bitter
My life would be if I should take
You for my spouse, a rattlesnake.
Oh no, I’d not accept the ring
Or evermore ‘twould prove a sting.

Vinegar valentines also went to the person who did the rejecting. They often took aim at a person’s physical appearance. And they mocked unmarried men and women for their single status.

valentine

She’s caught a poor cat and a bird, But she can’t snare a man, so we’ve heard, It’s the old maid’s sad fate, To lose out on a mate And take tea–but s-sh! not a word.

They went to rude sales clerks and expensive or incompetent doctors.

valentine-vinegar-civil-war

A vinegar Valentine from the Civil War era

Suffragists were especially popular targets.

By the middle of the 19th century, vinegar valentines made up an estimated half of all valentine sales.

Worcester Valentine History

Worcester had a long and distinguished history as the center of the U.S. valentine industry. From the start, Worcester valentines tended more toward the syrupy and sentimental rather than the caustic and vinegary.

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.

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.

An Esther Howland Valentine. All sweetness and light.

George Whitney bought out Howland and Taft in 1881. Then he snapped up at least 10 more valentine makers. Not all were located in Worcester. One of those, the A.J. Fisher Co., made vinegar valentines from its plant in New York. Whitney, who held to the motto “Industry, Punctuality and Christianity,” wanted nothing to do with them.

What happened to the plates that made the A.J. Fisher Company vinegar valentines? According to one story, Whitney passed them on to another New York maker of vinegar valentines, McLoughlin Bros.

Many sided with George Whitney on the vinegar valentine controversy. Newspapers editorialized against the vinegar valentine. In 1866, for example, the New York Times opined against them for encouraging “a fearful tendency to the development of swearing in males of all ages.” In some post offices, the postmaster refused to deliver them.

For decades, the George C. Whitney Company dominated the valentine business by automating production, selling nationally and owning its own supply chain. In 1915, Worcester Magazine estimated 90 percent of all valentines exchanged came from Worcester.

(To find out what it was like to work in the Whitney valentine factory, click here.)

The Vinegar Valentine

On May 20, 1939, Mrs. Marie Haggerty of 62 Austin Street in Worcester 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.

‘Tis a lemon that I hand you
And bid you now “skidoo,”
Because I love another–
There is no chance for you!

She had had a beau before Mr. Haggerty, 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.

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 valentines) 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.

The card-playing made is the “limit,” Her mind’s on the cards every minute; If she loses the prize, Oh, how deeply she sighs, “‘Tis so awful not to be in 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.

George C. Whitney died in 1915, but his son Warren and then his grandson George carried on. Finally 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. The Worcester Historical Museum has many George C. Whitney valentines and other greeting cards in its collection. This story about the vinegar valentine was updated in 2022. 

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