Collecting History

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Eventually I fell prey to the classic collector’s folly: I bought something totally unrelated to my main collection.

I had good luck at first. At a flea market in western Connecticut— then, as now, a cornucopia of antiques—I found a mug with a crisp, bright image of a pre-World War I Harley-Davidson motorcycle on it; over the course of half a year I wheedled a barbershop owner in Tarrytown, New York, into selling a mug, born in the shop, that showed the town’s first motorized hook and ladder, bought 1911; and late one winter night Harris took me a couple of hours up the parkway to stand stamping my feet on black, searing-cold earth while a dealer pulled from his barn a carved-oak mug rack from a hotel barbershop.

Then they dried up. There were no more mugs. I met some other collectors and managed to pry loose one or two; I drove to an auction in the ancient Pennsylvania town of Ephrata and got a nice iceman for too much money ($125); but the antiques shops and shows were empty.

By now, though, I was fully formed as a collector, which meant being willing to go on the longest quest on the faintest provocation. “I think,” a dealer would say, squinting with a patently false memory, “a fellow over by Creever’s Bridge had some occupationals. I think he had an undertaker and ... oh, maybe a biplane.”

Two things were immediately evident here: Creever’s Bridge was at least eighty miles away; and there were no mugs there. But off I’d go, passing through half a dozen town squares, each with its Civil War memorial, a triangle of cannonballs and a pot-metal Union soldier in his cloak and forage cap. And at last I’d come to Creever’s Bridge and find the antiques store, and it would have some stoneware jugs and a trestle table and a wicker baby carriage. The collecting impulse drives you to do many preposterous and obsessive things, but there is one real kindness about it, and that is the fact that the disappointment at not finding what you’re after is never keen enough to destroy the pleasure of the search. You’re more excited when you’re on your way to Creever’s Bridge than you are sad when you get there.

 

Nevertheless, I did get tired of coming home empty-handed from Pennsylvania whistle-stops, and eventually I fell prey to the classic collector’s folly: I bought something totally unrelated to my main collection.

It was a pretty nice thing: a chromolithograph published sometime after the turn of the century that showed an immense stone easel holding a stone tablet. Civil War veterans, graybearded in their faded blue and butternut, stared up at it while in the distance their younger counterparts crossed bayonets under a peppering of benign shellbursts. On the forty-story stone monolith were graven the names of every sizable Civil War battle, and at the top of it was space for the recipient of the print to write in his name. My particular veteran had been named Freelon Starbird and, as a key at the bottom explained, he had been wounded at Stones River.

 

I was pleased with this big, surreal print, but gradually I found that it had opened floodgates. Now I might buy anything.

At about this time a friend looking at my shaving-mug rack filled with the white-and-gold cups, each bearing the name of its owner, said to me, “You’ve got a regular little graveyard there, haven’t you?”

 

But I didn’t see it that way. The things seemed full of life to me, the little figures on them gravely sawing and hammering, driving horsecars, hauling freight, carrying hods, bolting boilers, busily whacking together the scaffolding of the whole nineteenth century. And I found that almost any remnant had the same power to summon up for me the era that produced it.

Like any other good American, I’m fond of our steam locomotives. I don’t have anything like the real train buff’s terrifying knowledge of them, but with their comprehensible mechanism and the weight of our Industrial Revolution resting easily on their lean boilers, they are wholly satisfying icons. So I next bought a cast-iron toy locomotive that I felt put across with great economy—as old toys do—the creature it represented.

This turned out to be a fake, as I should have suspected, given the asking price of fourteen dollars. I was angry and disgruntled, but not enough so to prevent me from buying another iron toy—this one a racing car—when an antiques show in a Bucks County firehouse turned out to be mugless.