Collecting Collectibles | Newberry

Collecting Collectibles

A loyal reader was talking to me recently about the concept of the collectible. He dismissed the manufactured collectible; he was giving me his theory of what constitutes the real thing: something that started out its life with some other purpose and then, through no fault of its own, became a “Collectible.”

He gave three rules for the creation of a collectible. It must be something that was very familiar, say, tin lunchboxes with pictures on them. They must then go out of use and be thrown away by most of the population. And finally, somebody has to go out and write a book about them. This happened to the old tin lunchboxes, and similar things have happened to baseball cards, comic books, and compacts, to name only a few. All of these were intended for specific short-termk markets and were then tossed out until somebody decided the design or the nostalgia value made them worth finding again.

I would add one more rule: some of them need to be easy to get, but others need to be nearly impossible. It is not SO very difficult to get a comic book published before 1945. But finding a copy of Detective Comics #27 (which featured the first appearance of a new character they called Bat-Man) is going to take you longer…or a great deal of cash. The numbering plays a role, too: you KNOW which numbers are hard to find.

I was reminded of these things by the arrival in the Book Fair room of a Mutoscope image. It is not, alas, a Mutoscope card, but the image from a Mutoscope card repurposed as half of the cover of a small notepad from 1948. It is NOT, as is normal for things like this which come to me, a particularly rare Mutoscope image, and only a fanatic Mutoscope collector would really want it. Still, it is a Collectible.

There are two entirely unrelated types of Mutoscope card. The Mutoscope was a movie machine invented by a fellow who worked for Thomas Edison but wasn’t averse to making a little money by talking something he worked on for Edison, improving it, and selling his own version. These were one-person viewers: like Edison’s kinetoscope, it had an eyepiece you looked into. For a nickel you could look down into the machine while a series of photographs on cards flipped fast enough in such a way that you seemed to be watching a moving image. For some years, this kind of machine was the most popular kind for movies; projecting images from a strip of film onto a screen came a little later. The new way made it a LOT easier to pack the customers in—you needed only chairs for them to sit in, not a separate six-foot cast-iron viewer for each person—and Mutoscope technology found itself shunted aside to sideshows at fairs and little arcades, where the movies gradually became raunchier and raunchier. The technology was killed somewhere around 1950 in this country, but lingered until the seventies and eighties in Europe, until the videocassette dealt it the final blow.

The movies shown in these machines are much better preserved than those shown on screens because they were not on fragile film, but on cards. These are frequently called Mutoscope cards; you can go online and watch some of the silent movies of the day.

I cannot find out how the other kind of Mutoscope card got its name, but its heyday was World War II, by which time the movie company was pretty much extinct. My guess is that they took their name from the racy films shown in Mutoscope viewers. Because although you can get Mutoscope cards of Great Bandleaders or Famous Singers, the pin-ups are the famous ones. These were artists’ rendering of goodlooking young women with rather long legs (the concentration on women’s legs during the World War II era of pin-ups has been the subject of a number of analytical dissertations) usually with a mildly tantalizing caption: the college graduate in a very short gown who is “In a Class By Myself” or the scantily clad artist saying “I Must Learn Where to Draw the Line”.

Neither kind of Mutoscope card is especially rare: they were produced by the thousands. What is hard is getting an entire series: an entire movie, in the case of the older version, or an entire set—“the All-American Girls”, say—of the latter kind. See, when the movies stopped being profitable, who would bother with those cards? And the second kind, which were often sold in vending machines or awarded as prize in coin-operated games of skill, were just cheap little things, and naughty besides. Now, books have been produced on the individual artists who produced the pin-up paintings, which, following our rules, made the prices go up, whether you collect Gil Elvgren (one of many artists called “King of the Pin-Up”) or Zoe Mozert, the pin-up model who realized the artist got more money, picked up a palette, and painted dozens of pin-ups of herself (thus saving the price of a model as well.)

What The Book Fair has is just one image, not on a card, so this will not buy me a retirement home in Barrington or Berwyn. But it IS a collectible and who knows? The donor may come back today with a hundred other Mutoscope-related notepads. Then I can write a book.

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