Collecting History


Now that I was being less parochial in my acquiring, I wanted everything I saw. That spring I particularly wanted a weather vane. I would come across them, their copper turned a lovely dark green by decades of weather and here and there a remnant of the original gold leaf giving off a sunken flash. But I discovered I was a snob. I’d been able to buy the best shaving mugs, but even fifteen years ago, when you could get a perfectly good weather vane for two hundred dollars, the best of them were going for eight and ten thousand. (It was easy to think how their original owners would have reacted to the knowledge that the mundane fixtures beneath whose pivotings they worked out their lives would someday command a sum big enough to pay for their farm, their neighbor’s, and a good chunk of the mill owner’s property to boot.) I held fast to my hauteur, passed on the lesser examples that I could afford, and as a consequence never did get a weather vane.


There were a good many evocative things, of course, that were beyond my grasp. I remember seeing at the sumptuous Winter Antiques Show at the 7th Regiment Armory in Manhattan (a show so rarefied that going through some of the booths gave me the edgy feeling of having wandered unbidden into somebody’s highly formal dining room) a hair-raising, definitive piece of Americana. It was a note, scribbled from Lexington Green on the morning of April 19, 1775, saying that the militia had clashed with British regulars, men were dead, and the king’s troops were moving on to Concord; have the militia ready to meet them there. This document would have cost close to half my yearly salary, but it still gives me pleasure to remember holding it, the rich, heavy old paper and the rusty scribble of its momentous message.

The biggest thing I ever got I found far from my usual circuit, in an antiques shop high up in the mountains near Georgetown, Colorado. It was a ten-foot section of dark wood trim from a barroom. Reverse painted glass panels set in explosively carved oak cartouches said things like SEGARS and RYE WHISKY. I thought it was wonderful but lost my nerve and bought it for Harris instead of me. The dealer shipped it east in a wooden crate so substantial that it cost Harris seventy-five dollars just to have it carted away. He sold the bar fixture within a week, and I regret not having it.

In fact, I regret not having everything I passed up. This is one of the crueler aspects of collecting: all the stuff that got away simply gleams in memory. I can still torment myself with the thought of a mug showing a batter slamming one into the stands that I let go because the asking price of $225 seemed too steep. I thought of it a year ago, when I watched a far less spectacular baseball mug go at auction for $1,300.

And yet, all in all, my spate of collecting brought me far more pleasure than frustration. And it was a pleasure always available. Some areas are richer than others in antiques— the whole of Pennsylvania is good, the strange upstate New York counties where all the residents are fat tend to be barren—but there is likely to be sometime interesting, anywhere.

A friend looking at my shavingmug collection once said to me, “You’ve got a regular little graveyard there, haven’t you?”

In Guttenberg, Iowa, I got a nice red-and-white banner full of stylized Dauntless dive bombers and bearing the exhortation ON LAND ON SEA IN THE AIR —LETS GO USA! KEEP ‘EM FLYING! REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR! Near the superb granite ghost town of Calumet on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I found a galvanized bread maker on whose cover were stamped encomiums from the 1904 world’s fair and full instructions. When I got it home, I found it worked so efficiently that for a few weeks, until the imperatives of late-twentieth-century life reasserted themselves, we actually made our own bread. Up in Duluth I bought a copy of Wehmann Brothers’ Hundred Best Irish Jokes, whose inscrutable contents offered a cautionary lesson to anyone who has ever tried to understand what people were like in the past: Not only were none of the jokes funny, but there was not a clue as to why anybody would ever have thought them funny.

So I drove and drove, year in and year out, over roads parched with summer and terrifying with winter sleet, past a hundred county seats with their foursquare, suitably cupolaed red-brick buildings, up into the hills where ash-colored stores offered me old fishhooks and caked blue bottles and, once, a complete human skeleton in a coffin (asking price: $425).

I ended up with about 110 occupational shaving mugs and an immense miscellany that may not represent a very distinguished collection but which remains eloquent to me. I’m not buying much these days. My life has changed considerably and, among other things, a five-year-old son has a claim on my quondam collecting funds.