On this Valentine's Day we look closely at the unexpected phenomenon of 'Vinegar Valentines'.

These rather nasty cards with bitter messages were sent during the Victorian era anonymously, usually to the people you didn’t like, and – even worse – to the recipient’s expense!

'The Postman', painted 1891 (OB1997.5)

‘The Postman’, painted 1891 (OB1997.5)

Cheap post now seems like an odd reason for a passionate, mass political movement, but it was as essential to Victorian lives as the internet is today. In the late 1830s, the cause attracted as much support as the fight for a universal vote.

Hundreds of thousands signed petitions backing Rowland Hill’s proposal to make sending a basic letter anywhere in the country cost just a penny. When the government finally agreed in 1840, it marked the first time millions of working class people were able to send letters regularly.

One rather unexpected side effect of all this social benefit was to take the sting out of ‘Vinegar Valentines’ – poisonous messages sent to the unfortunate recipient on Valentine’s Day.

Into the labyrinth – posting a letter before 1840

Cross-written letter, 1815 (2015-0004)

Cross-written letter, 1815 (2015-0004)

Pricing post before these reforms was fiendishly complicated. Each letter was charged depending on the number of sheets sent, leading some people to ‘cross-write’ their letters like the one above, and prices differed between every pair of postal towns.

An army of staff worked out the price for each letter individually using a reference book, with the cheapest letters costing 4 pence. It was the recipient, not the sender, who paid for the letter, meaning that you had to be rich enough to pay for your post.

Before 1840, post was so complicated and expensive that it cost an extra penny just to carry a letter across some individual bridges, such as the Menai and Conway bridges between London and Dublin.

Vinegar Valentines

All this played into the hands of the senders of unkind Valentines, like the one below from 1790.

A paper print design for a grotesque Valentine in black ink (OB1997.17)

A paper print design for a Valentine in black ink (OB1997.17)

Vinegar Valentines were printed by stationers, typically on cheap and nasty paper, often with mocking rhymes. Not all were sent to despised lovers: the anonymity of the post meant that you could send bitter messages to hated business rivals, or anyone else you didn’t like.

Crucially, because the recipient covered the relatively expensive postage, they actually paid to be insulted – a double whammy in the heart and in the pocket.

Cheap universal postage

As well as making post much cheaper, Hill’s reforms also ended the widely abused ‘franking’ system, which allowed MPs and other well connected people to send their post for free. Decades earlier, author and MP Horace Walpole was typical in lending his free frank to dozens of friends and family, while poorer people were priced out of the system.

Now, in 1840, suddenly everyone could afford to send a letter. Hill, below, was widely celebrated.

Half length portrait of Rowland Hill as a young man, c. 1836 (2004-0154)

Sir Rowland Hill – Oil Painting, c.1836 (2004-0154)

In 1839, the call for cheaper postage had become a political movement, with large public meetings and 2,000 petitions sent to the government.

Although the volume of post doubled, revenues initially fell. The Post Office encouraged the practice of sending Christmas cards for the first time to grow the business. There was also a thriving industry in creating genuine Valentine cards, although this was not as price sensitive.

Eugene Rimmel ran a successful line of Valentines decorated with lace and flowers, and some men spent up to a month’s wages on a deeply felt Valentine like this one:

Elaborate Valentine card (OB1995.165)

Valentine’s Day Card, c.1870 (OB1995.165/1)

Now that senders had to express their bitterness at their own expense, Vinegar Valentines did not outlast the Victorian period. However, you could argue that the tradition of mean-spirited messaging survives on the internet today!

– The Postal Museum Team

Sign up to our newsletter for stories of extraordinary communication and more.