February 2010 Feature Article

Moveable Memories: The Sheer Joy of Mechanical Flat Valentines     By Sharon Verbeten

 

With a copyright date of 1939 (licensed by Walt Disney Productions) this Jiminy Cricket valentine is one of quite a few made that depict Disney characters.

 

A rivet makes Jiminy’s umbrella move. Value could be $20 or more depending on condition Moving the girl’s head allows her to kiss the boy. Sailors are an especially popular theme on mechanical flats.

In the 1940s and 1950s, grade school children eagerly awaited February 14. It wasn’t just another day of the week, but an event. Gaily decorated boxes were repositories for small paper valentines—and boys and girls wished and hoped the “apples of their eye” would secretly drop one in.

But sometimes, if you were truly someone’s “intended,” you might get an extra special valentine—not a plain old flat one, but one with moving parts. Those so-called mechanical valentines are receiving attention by collectors everywhere.

Much has been written about the elaborate, lace- and honeycomb-festooned valentines of the Victorian era, but few have documented the wonders of mechanical flat valentines from the 1940s to 1960s. They are always charming, sometimes humorous, often affordable—and can’t help but recall pleasant memories.

From a historic perspective, mechanical valentines—defined as those with one or more moving parts—date back to the 1800s. Every period in the valentine evolution has had mechanicals, but starting around the 1920s, metal rivets were affixed to flat (not three-dimensional) valentines to allow a part to move. The rivet might make an arm wave, a tongue stick out, an umbrella raise, a seesaw move, an oar row, or legs dance—all upping the interest level and “wow factor” of the valentines.

“Right after the Depression, they started making a lot of them to make times happy,” said Katherine Kreider, a longtime collector/dealer and author of several books on valentines.

The main interest in the mechanical flats—and the primary reason behind the values—is cross collectibility, she said.

“I think it’s all cross collectibility,” admitted Kreider, who has sold valentines for 15 years and collected them for more than three decades. “I think categories are very important, especially in this day and age when everybody is budgeting their money; they will really now focus more than ever on a particular category.

“When you are a collector, you don’t want to give it up,” she said, but, “You might narrow it down.”

Much like the postcard field, the vast array of topics and characters makes mechanical flats playful additions to any collection. “It was fun,” Kreider added. “They crossed all boundaries.”

Among the most popular themes coveted today include occupations, transportation, soldiers and sailors, Disney and other cartoon characters, and celebrities (Groucho Marx, Jimmy Durante and Veronica Lake, for example, were depicted on mechanical flats).

Collectors also seek valentines depicting familiar technology of the day—telephones, radios, ironing boards and typewriters—which remind collectors of their childhood.

Since many mechanical flats remain affordable, they are an ideal way for collectors to enter the world of valentines. While rarer and more elaborate Victorian valentines can be prohibitively expensive, most mechanical flats from the 1940s to 1960s are available for $20 or less.

Those with puns or plays on words (such as the word “gay,” which had a very different meaning decades ago) might have a greater following and interest level. And Kreider added that Boy Scout and Girl Scout valentines—because of rarity and demand—could bring top prices of $50 to $100.

Aside from theme, condition and size are two keys to pricing mechanical flats. Due to their nature, those with rips, creases, or broken “moving parts” will greatly decrease in value. “It has less value unless the image is scarce,” Kreider said.

In addition, oversized valentines with movable parts may bring higher prices, according to several experts.

Aside from finding a character or verse that touches a collector, most people are thrilled by mechanical valentines because of the craftsmanship, chromolithographed designs and inherent humor—much the same as the charm and wonder of pop-up children’s books.

 

The Signature Question

But should a valentine be signed? Does it impact value? Kreider said she has agonized over the question for years. She said that erasing a signature will not increase the value of a card, but it could leave an imprint on the card, which would likely be undesirable.

“Unfortunately, collecting valentines is not all black and white. This is actually the gray area of collecting valentines,” she said.

"Most collectors buy valentines because they tug at their heart strings for one reason or another, but there are collectors that want to collect only cards that are not signed,” she added. Those are known as uncirculated cards, ones that have “never seen the light of day, never been signed, nor have been given from the heart.”

As a valentine expert, Kreider feels comfortable with her current stand on the subject.

“For me, it’s the love factor; each card in my mind represents love and it represents happiness,” she said. “I’d like to think that when that card was given, it was received the same way it was given. It made someone’s day. They took it, kept it and tucked it away.

“A valentine it not a valentine until it is given away.” 

 

Shoebox Full of Valentines?

It’s not uncommon to unearth a shoebox full of vintage valentines in a relative’s closet, attic, or dresser drawer. The signatures and sentiments were often saved as tokens of memories past.

But if you find them and are not a collector, what do you do with them? Dealer and author Katherine Kreider said there are many routes to take.

• Consider whether it is worth your time to sort through the box, sorting out the good, possibly saleable ones, from the others.

• Seek a professional appraisal of the items. Note that most appraisers do charge for their services.

• Visit your library/bookstore to read books about vintage valentines to get an idea of their potential value. Remember that most may have only modest value, but there could be some valuable gems in the box.

• Sell them yourself, either through an antiques publication or online.

• Contact an antiques dealer or a valentine specialist who can assess the value of the box.

•  Most importantly, Kreider said, be sure to show family members the items and ask if they want any of them. These sentimental pieces may be coveted by some family members. “There are many feelings in that shoebox of cards,” she said. “That’s what valentines are all about.”

 

The Dating Game

How can you tell the age of mechanical valentines? Most are unmarked, so buyers must often look for some earmarks of age.

Often, the style of clothing or military uniform may help date a piece. The style of dress and accessories typically reflected the era in which it was made.

Looking for an artists’ name—and knowing when that artist worked—is another key, although there are few artist-signed mechanical flats from the 1940s-1960s.

Some valentines are marked “Made in Germany,” which likely means the piece predates World War II, but use caution since some items made after the fall of the Berlin Wall are similarly marked.

 

Looking for Love?

Want more information about vintage valentines? Check out these Web sites.

www.valentinesdirect.com - Katherine Kreider’s Web site.

www.ephemerasociety.org - The Ephemera Society of America.

http://www.libraries.wvu.edu/exhibits/valentine/ -  West Virginia University’s online exhibit of vintage valentines.
 

 

 

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