Jessica Helfand | Collections

Penny Dreadfuls

In the mid-nineteenth century, romantic cynics sent inexpensively-printed insult greetings on Valentine's Day, often labeled by profession and typically featuring a short riff on the classic four-line verse. Called Penny Dreadfuls (because they cost a penny) and sometimes referred to as "Vinegar Valentines," they were funny and mean — and because of this, were often sent anonymously.

Such gestures remind us, as others have said, that nothing says "I Love You" like a mass-produced sentiment written by somebody else: Herewith, our very own collection.

Posted in: Graphic Design

Comments [7]

The word kitsch comes to mind when describing the impression left by several of these slides. Although slide #1 gave me a much needed Monday afternoon laugh.

Someone should tell the folks at Be My Anti Valentine that number 14 in the slideshow ("You'll do") has a straight apostrophe in it! :-)
Ricardo Cordoba

Hmm, that's weird, the card looks fine on their website:


Ricardo Cordoba

Sorry, but I'm pretty sure Penny Dreadfuls were books like Sweeney Todd not cards. They were mass consumed fiction started in the 1830s, printed on cheap pulp paper and cost one penny. They were called dreadfuls because of the storylines. E.g Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street making his customers into meat pies after robbing them. Vinegar valentines are different.


Alan Buchanan

Alan, no question that PDs are also used to refer to Victorian pulp fiction, but they were also a kind of valentine. Notes ephemera dealer Syl Turner:

"No discussion of valentine cards would be complete without mention of what was referred to as the “Penny Dreadfuls,” which first appeared in this country circa 1890. Unlike the typical sweet and romantic card, these were bitterly cutting valentines. Whatever peculiarity, trait or handicap someone had, or was impugned to have, was made fun of with these valentines. The homely man or woman, the spinster, the overweight individual, the flirt, or the dishonest butcher with a fat thumb, might well have received a Penny Dreadful on Valentine’s Day. Such cards were often delivered by some surreptitious manner to the unfortunate precipitants home. The McLoughlin Brothers, which eventually became a giant U.S. publishing company, was one of the most prolific publishers of these early paper novelties."
Jessica Helfand

Carl W. Smith

Jessica Helfand--the whole page seems to have reloaded every time Chrome got a new slide; and the ads stayed the same, your publications list persisting just as dynamically well below the single image. Dun the web editors for performance?

Kitsch they're not, because though I have received Vinegar Valentines (sometimes followed with an antidote) you know, they're still worth pennies and not rallying at auction. How about Dark Camp? A little under the Where Is Your God Now cross-stitch, or the Evangelion-not-end.ru gallery inveigled into an Outlook signature.
Steve Nordquist

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