The sending of Valentine's Day cards became a mass-market phenonmenon in the nineteenth century, especially after the introduction of postage stamps in 1840. In early decades, cards were often decorated with real ribbons and lace. Later, as they began to be mass-produced, paper lace came into use. Here are a few images of elaborate nineteenth-century valentines:
We readily associate sentimental, romantic images of hearts, flowers, and Cupids with that era. Lesser known are the negative-message cards also popular among the Victorians, often downright mean missives called "vinegar valentines." Originally they were labeled "comic" valentines, a category that still exists today, but not quite so harsh. Nowadays we can find funny, sometimes sarcastic cards alongside the serious, sentimental ones, such as birthday cards with jokes about getting old, but we seldom see cards as openly insulting as some of the Victorian examples:Victorian Vinegar Valentines
Here's a page of authentic cards in that category:Vinegar Valentine Images
They're relatively hard to find, it's said, because people tended not to save them. No wonder! Hard to imagine who'd send acquaintances cards mocking their looks, personalities, and failures in love, yet apparently there seems to have been a substantial market for those products.
Like Victorian pornography, some of which was as hardcore as ours, vinegar valentines remind us that the popular image of Victorians as pure-minded, romantic, sentimental, and wholly devoted to family values is an incomplete picture of the realities of the era.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt