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Newberry Librarian Stanley Pargellis in the stacks, ca. 1959.

Newberry Librarian Stanley Pargellis in the stacks, ca. 1959.

The official Newberry blog exploring the library’s collection and the kernels of mind-blowing knowledge that our users and staff pull from it.

Vintage Valentine Contraptions

For some, they’re a heart-felt expression of love. For others, they’re sentimental schlock. For Andrew McNally III, valentines were an art form worthy of being collected and preserved.

The great-grandson of the co-founder of Rand McNally, the famous map publishing firm (for which he served as chairman from 1974 to 1993), Andrew McNally III (1909-2001) developed an interest in valentines as a teenager, when he began collecting them. Over the course of his life, the collection grew to include around 325 valentines, most of them American, British, or German creations from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries.

In 1991, he donated the entire collection to the Newberry.

Valentine Cobweb.jpg

A pull of a string reveals a cupid figure in this Victorian-era "cobweb" valentine.

A pull of a string reveals a cupid figure in this Victorian-era “cobweb” valentine.

The valentines run the gamut, from the traditional (or at least what we’d now call traditional), to the elegant, to the extravagant, to the snarky, to (in my mind, at least) the downright bizarre. And though some tend to reinforce hackneyed gender norms, many others are quite inventive.

The most distinctive valentines in the McNally collection, though, are interactive, three-dimensional cards. In fact, many of these are so interactive—inviting one to engage in a complex sequence of unfolding, unfurling, or unflapping—that “card” isn’t really the right word. I’d say they’re more like valentine contraptions. They evoke Rube Goldberg as much as Hallmark.

Many of these interactive valentines are colorful, multi-layered works consisting of a variety of materials. One, a large blue steamship with cavorting children on deck, can be unfolded and propped upright.

Valentine Ship.jpg

The McNally collection includes many steamship-themed valentines. Many, like this one, can be unfolded and propped on top of a table.

The McNally collection includes many steamship-themed valentines. Many, like this one, can be unfolded and propped on top of a table.

Others feature bicycles, chariots, trains, and sailboats. (Who would’ve thought that transportation could be so romantic?)

One of the McNally collection’s most sophisticated works is an English “cobweb” card from around 1840. The card itself displays a hand-painted lithograph with two women walking by a house, while a man gazes on. Attached to the center of the illustration is a string that, when lightly pulled, lifts away the image of the house to reveal an interior scene of the man and the woman, and when pulled again displays an image of a cupid figure and a valentine message.

There are also some baffling additions to the collection. My favorite of these is a yellow-eyed monkey perched atop a bar wearing a Renaissance collar with the words “Don’t Monkey With My Heart” stitched upon it. A string allows the recipient to “monkey” around with the monkey’s body by extending its tissue-paper torso, accordion-style.

Valentine Monkey.jpg

Nothing says romance like a monkey with an extensible crepe-paper torso.

Nothing says romance like a monkey with an extensible crepe-paper torso.

Whether or not you’re the sort for whom extensible monkey valentines scream passion, I don’t know. But either way, the cards in the McNally collection provide an often refreshingly whimsical take on an age-old tradition.

By Matthew Clarke, Communications Coordinator

Comments

delightful! thanks for sharing these!
My heart leaped when I read this. I have been writing a book called "The Mystery of the Jewish New Year Valentines" (I even tried to sell it to the Newberry before I knew you don't buy--now I plan to leave the collection and the book, however far I get, to the Library when I die). I must come and see these cards you write about! Can I make an appointment?
Is this collection on display to the public? Will there be a curated presentation/tour to help see the highlights in a reasonable period of time? Would love to check it out!
Thank you so much for that interesting and well-illustrated piece. Happy Valentine's Day! <3
Bindy, that's so cool! You can sign up for a reader card and view these valentines any time our reading rooms are open. Here's more information about the reader registration process: https://www.newberry.org/research
These are not on display in our exhibit galleries at the moment. But you can always sign up for a reader card and request to view them in our reading room! Here's some info: https://www.newberry.org/research

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