Deep in the heart of the McCain Library and Archives — or, well, the fourth floor — you can find something sweet and sour but unlike any chicken dish you might order for a Valentine’s Day dinner.
The Richard August Neubert Antique Valentine Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi is an assemblage of both paeans to romance and venomous wit known as “vinegar” valentines — not to mention intricately designed and die-cut 3D cards that pop up or fold out, and more delicate ones embossed with lace.
In total, there are 650 cards, plus magazine articles, letters and paper ephemera dating to 1838 but also as recent as the 1980s. The Neubert collection, which totals 3.5 cubic feet of material in fewer than 10 boxes, is part of the famous de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, which itself is part of the larger Special Collections within University Libraries.
As with any good old tale from an archive, there is a bit of mystery about Neubert — the man and the collection — sprinkled in with the figurative dust and cobwebs of history.
On a recent visit to the collection, Ellen Ruffin, the de Grummond curator for 14 years, admits that she can’t immediately put her hands on the details about Neubert or the donation. This is in part because she wasn’t working at the archives when the donation was made, and also because the de Grummond website is in transition, and older pages detailing the collection have not yet been uploaded to the new site.
In fact, a web search turns up scant information about Neubert other than two posts on the Southern Miss website in February 2015 highlighting a special exhibit of the collection.
So who was Neubert, and why was his collection donated to Southern Miss?
“Yes, why?” Ruffin said. “Since I wasn’t here, I don’t know. I think he just sent them to us. Somehow he identified the de Grummond Collection. Often, our collections are because of conversations back and forth (with donors). But i don’t have a record of that.”
It will take a bit more digging to unravel the mystery. The first clue is a 1978 letter in the collection from the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Victoria, Australia, addressed to Neubert at a Chicago address. But it proves a dead end.
Later, a search of newspaper articles not accessible on the web — through a university database subscription — turns up a 1999 story by the Associated Press that cites the Neubert collection, lists his hometown as Columbia, Mississippi, and quotes Ruffin’s predecessor, curator Dee Jones.
With an assist from Ruffin, Jones is tracked down for a phone interview.
“He was dead before the collection was given to us,” Jones says of Neubert. “I can’t tell you who the donor was. He requested that it be anonymous.
“The only backstory is, he basically collected a bunch of paper ephemera — menus, old labels on cigar boxes and typical things that people into paper ephemera collect. He was a designer of some sort. What I remember, he had career in a bigger city, possibly Chicago, and then moved to Mississippi after retiring. I know nothing about him. Just that he was a collector of that type of thing.”
The Columbian-Progress newspaper in Columbia has a digital archive going back decades. A search for Richard (Dick) Neubert turns up an obituary from 1991. He died of cancer on May 10 at age 73. He was cremated and his ashes returned to his hometown of Lansing, Michigan, to be scattered over his parents’ graves.
In a November 1931 article from the Lansing State Journal, a Richard Neubert is listed as cartoonist for the Classroom Weekly, the student paper at Pattengill Junior High School. Neubert would have been 14, a budding artist.
He had moved to Columbia in 1982 after retiring as a graphic artist, according to his obituary. “His varied interests led to a number of interesting collections in the field of decorative arts and a remarkable library containing many first editions,” it reads.
A further search of The Columbian-Progress archives finds numerous references to garden shows for the Pine Needle Garden Club hosted by Neubert and James Irby at 1602 Church St. throughout the 1980s.
With a bit more time, Ruffin is able to find a copy of the de Grummond’s Juvenile Miscellany newsletter from spring 1996, which highlights the newly donated collection by one James G. Irby. Lorraine Stuart, an associate professor and head of Special Collection, also confirms finding the record of correspondence about the donation with Irby, who died in 2006.
Stuart chalks up the confusion over the donation being anonymous to fuzzy memories as time passes.
The newsletter provides more detail about Neubert: that he was a sergeant during World War II and was decorated by the U.S. and Philippine governments for his service in the Pacific Theatre. He was a “specialist in graphic arts, packaging, design and corporate and industrial design.” He collected for more than 40 years while working for several companies, including Sears.
In the end, the mystery was really just part of the nature of all archives, Stuart says.
“The difference coming into an archival collection and just a library is that there’s always two stories,” she says. “There’s the story that’s the content and then there’s the story of how it got there. The stories are not always known or not always known fully. Sometimes that is kind of the researchers’ purview to piece that together.”
The collection was appraised at $68,000 when it was donated in 1995, which would be a little more than $112,000 today adjusted for inflation and not counting for appreciation.
Even though there is more work to be done to make the collection better organized, categorized and digitized for online access, Stuart is proud that its contents are still available to any researcher who walks in the door.
“I will say this: Most archives have a fairly large backlog of things before they’re fully processed,” she says. “One good thing is that we allow access to the collections before they’re fully processed, which is not always the case. This one does need a finding aid, but it’s been housed; i think it’s properly housed. It’s something that someone can use, and so that to me is kind of the bottom line. Can a researcher come in here and actually access the material?
“It is, as one of my friends at the Getty (Museum) used to say, ‘People don’t realize the vastness of the archival enterprise.’ It is a tremendous amount of work, but well worth it, i think.”
The digitization of the Neubert collection — scanning, photography and a description of the item called metadata — has begun and is likely to take several months, Ruffin says. For perspective, Stuart says, about 24,000 documents were digitized throughout Special Collections in 2018.
In the meantime, collection staff are available to meet and interview researchers about their needs to get them started on a dive into the collection.
“Sometimes researchers really don’t know, they’re just looking,” Stuart says. “You never learn the collection down to the document, and that’s part of the fun — you’re constantly uncovering things, often in response to the needs of a researcher.”
Stuart demurs when asked if she thinks the vinegar valentines, which in many cases cruelly depict women, resonate in an era of Twitter misogyny and the Me Too Movement.
“Everything old is new again,” she says. “Those kinds of observations, that is the purview of the researcher.”
Nicolle Jordan, an associate professor of English and director of the women’s and gender studies program at Southern Miss, says after examining examples that the cards can actually be sexist to both genders.
“I would say that the vinegar valentines express the culture’s suspicion toward — and punishment of — single women,” she says in an email. “The ‘old maid’ is a threatening figure because she’s an independent woman. But it’s interesting that men are also targeted in this vinegar valentine tradition. The cards police conventional femininity AND masculinity. ... With taunting like this, who needs Valentine’s Day?”
The collection also contains valentine cards that soldiers fighting in the Civil War could send home to their loved ones. Titled “Love Protects,” a moveable card with a flap opens to reveal a soldier in a tent penning this verse: “Strong is the warrior’s arm, / That strikes for Fortune and Fame. / Thrice armed his stalwart form / Who fights in thy dear name.”
Merits of Reward were precursors to report cards for children that predate 1800. The collection holds about 115. They began as small slips of paper, Ruffin says, but later mimicked dollar bills or included small colorful pictures pasted on the cards.
“As you can imagine, children would love to get something that looked like money,” she says. “This is one of the coolest things we have.”
While de Grummond occasionally acquires additional antique valentines, its focus remains on the work of children’s literature authors and illustrators to add to its collection of notables like H.A. and Margret Rey of Curious George fame and Ezra Jack Keats.
Even so, Stuart can’t deny the appeal of the Neubert collection. “To me, I find the collection fascinating and would love to have a sit-down and rummage through it,” she says. “It’s a social history as well as the graphic history.”