Dr Annebella Pollen's research looks at sending cards to enforce social norms
12 Feb 2013
Pollen, who teaches on the History of Art and Design programme, discovered the Valentines whilst researching a project on love and courtship for the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove. In the back of a stationer’s sample book from 1870, she discovered dozens of cheap, single-sheet, insulting Victorian valentines, each featuring a comic sketch and a few lines of verse.
Pollen explains that the intent behind vinegar valentines was the opposite of sweet, sentimental valentines. They could be used to reject unwanted romantic overtures, but they were also used for more than this: “You could send them to your neighbours, friends, or enemies. You could send them to your schoolteacher, your boss, people you thought drank too much, or people acting above their station. There was a card for pretty much every social ailment.”
The cards, which were often sent anonymously, can be seen as a way of enforcing social norms. For example, Pollen noted there are quite a few cards that mocked men with babies on their laps as being henpecked—the kind of thing we would now think of as a man doing the right thing by taking his share of child care. But these cards were specifically designed to make the man seem emasculated and disempowered by being left holding the baby.
For the article, Lisa Hix gathered together a range of examples of vinegar valentines from Britain and America from the 1840s to the 1940s, and interviewed Pollen to make sense of their origins and meanings. While the format and the aesthetic of the cards change over a century, Pollen observes that what remains the same is the sentiment—or lack of it. For example, the women who are pilloried in them may wear different outfits, but they’re still mocked for how they look, whether they’re wearing a crinoline or a bustle or a skin-tight dress.
Although this main focus of Pollen's research is the Victorian period, the historic cards can also shed light on our contemporary culture, and may help us to understand contemporary forms of anonymous communication, from cyberbullying to online 'trolls'. As Pollen argues, technology does not create these conditions. The impulse to insult is longstanding, and valentine card manufacturers capitalised on this rather than created it. Pollen also observes that the trend for anti-valentines is being embraced again by greetings cards manufacturers. She muses, “Maybe it’s because people are forever seeking out new products to sell that they think haven’t been sold before, or perhaps it is because vinegar valentines answer some kind of human need. People need a safety valve, so maybe an insulting valentine card is a good way of letting off some steam. After all, anyone with any sort of critical faculties is going to find some of the sentimental aspects of Valentine’s Day a bit cloying and unpleasant.”
To read the Collectors Weekly article in full visit: www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/happy-valentines-day-i-hate-you