Collecting History

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I drove twenty thousand miles and got just one real bargain. That was up the Hudson River on a boisterous, wind-scrubbed October day fifteen years ago. My friend Harris is an antiques dealer who at the time was specializing in live steam: elegant old working models of freight locomotives, tugboats, ocean liners. He had spotted a tiny ad buried in the part of The New York Times where they usually herald auctions of kitchen equipment; it announced a live-steam sale that Saturday in Claverack, New York. Harris was jubilant. No other dealer would see the ad. He would come home loaded down with finely crafted rarities.

We got up early—if you’re even a mildly dedicated seeker of antiques, you find yourself getting dressed in the dark a lot —and headed north. My new girlfriend, Carol, came along, sleepily amazed that anyone would want an old thing enough to sit in a frigid station wagon at dawn, trying to suck warmth out of wilting paper coffee cups. We got to the sale, and Harris was right: there weren’t any other antiques dealers there. Nor did his absent colleagues miss much. What was being sold, from a bizarre heap on a hill, was dozens of steam radiators.

Harris swore and grumbled, sourly amused. Carol pointed to a desolate flea market that had grown up in the shadow of the great radiator sale. “Maybe it won’t be a total loss,” she said to me. “Maybe there’s a mug there.”

I became full of fond condescension. I’d been collecting occupational shaving mugs for three years. The chances of that sparse huddle of card tables producing one were nil. I started to tick off what I knew would be there: a broken Barbie doll, some forks, a flashlight. “You can’t be sure until you’ve looked,” said Carol with the cheery ignorance of the neophyte. She walked over to the nearest table, glanced down at it for ten seconds, picked something up, and said, “Is this one?”

 

It was a rare and perfect one. It showed a lumberyard. It cost forty dollars at a time I easily could have sold it for three hundred. Amazed, I gave the dealer two twenties, wondering with collector’s logic—which is a faith in utter absurdities—whether my luck had changed and this was the way things were going to go from then on. But nothing had changed, and it never happened again.

I should say something about occupational shaving mugs, for they were the mainspring that drove me back and forth across half the country. If you were, say, a carpenter and lived between the Civil War and the First World War, you got shaved in a barbershop. Like the saloon, the barbershop was a great clubhouse for the working class, and men would go there to catch up on the newspapers and exchange gossip. If you were a regular, you had your own mug. The barber would order it for you, and when he did, a near-sighted craftsman in one of the big Midwestern barber-supply companies would take a porcelain blank (these came from the china manufactories of Europe), paint a picture of a man sawing a plank or driving a nail, fire it in a kiln, paint your name above the picture in elaborate gold, fire it again, and ship it to your barber. You would pay—perhaps as much as five dollars. I liked to think of Americans taking enough pride in their trade to spend a week’s wage memorializing it.

 

Anyway, that’s what I collected. The mug’s cost rose according to the rarity of the occupation depicted. At the time, I was paying around a hundred dollars for the more common trades —plumber, mechanic, baker—and up to three hundred dollars for the more esoteric ones. About the most esoteric I ever got was a man who rented rowboats for a living.

Mugs were scarce. They’d been sought early (pioneering collectors in the 1930s actually bought them out of the old barbershops), and antiques dealers all knew about them, knew they were valuable. I drove from Massachusetts to the Midwest looking for them, and I don’t think I found more than a dozen on the road. As I went, I began buying other antiques, an old tool here and a painted sign there until it sometimes seemed as if I were trying to gather the parts of a huge and incoherent jigsaw puzzle that, once assembled, would show The American Past. There was a sharp and particular pleasure in ferreting out antiques, but I find that now my warmest memories of the process lie elsewhere: in the look of the towns I drove through, the people I spoke with, and the sense of a vanished civilization I got from the leavings of it that I brought home with me.

But mugs came first. My father had picked up a few of them before World War II. I’d paid no particular attention to them all the time I was growing up, but instantly upon my graduating from college in 1970 some odd variant of separation anxiety made them objects of formidable desire. I wanted more.