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.

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.

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.

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