Reminisce: Lima hearts hurt by ‘vinegar’ valentines

As Valentine’s Day approached in 1892, the Lima Daily Times printed an article praising the trend toward a “higher class of work” in Valentine’s Day cards. The cards, the newspaper added, “are destined to take the place of the horrible red, blue and green affairs that have been familiar objects for a quarter of a century or more.”

In place of “abusive subscriptions in alleged verse, and the still more abusive illustrations,” the new cards featured a sarcasm “so pleasant and good natured that even the most thin skinned can take no offense.”

The “horrible” cards were likely what was known as “comic,” or “vinegar” valentines, which came into vogue in the middle of the 19th century. The vinegar valentines were commercially bought postcards that contained an insulting poem and illustration. They were sent anonymously, with, according to the web site atlasobscura, postage due on receipt. Not surprisingly, many went unclaimed and clogged up the post office on what was already one of its busiest days.

“Yesterday was St. Valentine day,” the Allen County Democrat wrote in 1883, “and those who have not outgrown such things flocked to the post office and lingered there till their anticipations were realized or their hopes blasted. A large number of rich valentines of sentiment, with their Cupids and Psyches, their loves and doves, were triumphantly received. Then there were hundreds of those horrid, hideous, comic valentines, received in good part by some and with sour looks by the more sensitive.”

The kinder, gentler cards the Daily Times wrote about in 1892 arrived a year late for one Lima woman, who in 1891 apparently sent one of the good old abusive valentines to two thin-skinned acquaintances. The card, the Daily Times reported February 18, 1891, “caricatured them in a very uncomplimentary manner, and bad blood having previously existed among them, they at once attributed their receipt to Mrs. Childs. They accordingly went to the place (Mrs. Childs’ home on West Vine Street) to do Mrs. Childs up.”

And “do Mrs. Childs up” they did. “They pulled her hair, beat her, pinched and cut her arms, and, Mrs. Childs thinks, would have killed her, but for the interference of neighbors,” the Daily Times wrote. “After giving Mrs. Childs as near as possible the appearance of a comic valentine they withdrew from the battlefield. This afternoon Mrs. Childs swore out a warrant for their arrest.”

Although hearts and flowers and Cupids and expressions of love predominated, Valentine’s Day in the second half of the 19th century had a mean streak.

“One week from Saturday is St. Valentine’s Day, and if you have got any spite against anyone that will be the time to give it vent by giving them the worst looking valentine that you can find,” the Allen County Democrat suggested in February 1880.

The Daily Times, meanwhile, bemoaned the trend in a February 1881 story. “Last Monday, the 14th day of February, was St. Valentine’s Day, and it was celebrated in the usual way,” the newspaper wrote. “The spirit and the manner of its observance at the present time has degenerated from its first institution, and instead of commemorative of true mating of hearts, it is now used as a means to wound those against whom persons have the least antipathy, by sending under cover of an envelope, pictures that are calculated to offend the recipient.”

Anonymity, as Mrs. Childs could have attested, was key to avoiding retribution, although recipients of comic valentines did occasionally issue public, published, usually vague, threats against their unknown tormentors. “Mant Vanata says if she knew who sent her that Valentine it would not be good for them,” the Democrat noted in February 1886. “Feb. 14th was Valentine Day here (Lafayette) and there were a number of Valentines put in the (post) office here by unknown parties, and if these unknown parties are caught by some ladies near to a graveyard, these young fellows will be near the place of their burial,” the Daily Times wrote in February 1890.

Before home mail delivery, all mail was posted and picked up at the Post Office where, with the arrival of the railroads, mail arrived four times a day. For the Post Office, Valentine’s Day was chaos.

“Yesterday was St. Valentine’s Day, and the post office was crowded with eager expectants, from morn till eve,” Lima’s Weekly Gazette reported in February 1865. In those days the Post Office was in a room on the first floor of a building in the southwest quadrant of the Public Square. “About four bushels and a half, more or less, of foolishness in the shape of valentines passed through our post office,” the Democrat wrote in February 1873.

“On Saturday, St. Valentines day, the Post Office was filled from morn till night with a howling mob of youngsters, all crazy for ‘picters,’ and pretty little paper cupids and flowers, with verses of love, undying affection, etc., thereto attached, and when the window was closed, Harry Dalzell, who had shoveled them out to the gang, fainted away and he was carried home on a shutter,” the Democrat quipped in February 1880.

To facilitate the home delivery of mail, Lima’s City Council in 1883 passed an ordinance establishing the method for numbering houses and, by 1888, the first five mail carriers took to the city’s streets. Gradually, the Post Office, which by this time was in the old city building on the southwest corner of Main and High streets, got less chaotic on Valentine’s Day as the mail carriers’ loads increased.

“Tomorrow will be celebrated the world over as St. Valentine’s Day,” the Daily Times wrote in 1891. “The heart of many a love-sick youth or maiden fair will be made lighter and the packs of the city mail carriers correspondingly heavier by the receipt of a lovely reminder of the day when St. Valentine was supposed to have died a martyr’s death.”

The messages on those valentines were lighter as well as the fad of sending comic valentines faded. In February 1894, the Lima Times-Democrat consigned them to the past and praised the new ways of marking Valentine’s Day.

“They were frightful, those so called ‘comic valentines,’ and not only that, but they were vicious. They sometimes embittered for years the minds of sensitive persons who received them. They fostered spite and coarseness in the minds of those who sent them,” the newspaper wrote. “We are glad that the new fashion in valentines is to send flowers, bonbons and pretty inexpensive presents to those one wishes to remember kindly. That is the new fashion in valentines, and it is eminently artistic and satisfactory. If anything is more particularly appreciated than another by everybody, it is a sweet, gentle, graceful, mindful courtesy.”




This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].