July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
Donald Morris, the novelist, newspaperman, and historian who knows everything and publishes a lively weekly newsletter about it out of Houston, reports a triumph. He has just acquired Sky Birds card No. 97, which shows Capitaine Georges Thenault, the first commanding officer of the original seven Americans who enlisted to fly for France in the Lafayette Escadrille before America entered the First World War. Morris had no urgent interest in Thenault, but No. 97 was the card he needed to complete the full set of 108 Sky Birds issued by the National Chicle Company in the early 1930s.
This, of course, is an item one could pursue for three lifetimes and never come near. Donald Morris got it without leaving Houston—or, for that matter, his home. The medium of his acquisition was eBay, the online auction site that offers instant access to the entire material world, and to endless inventories of a vanished one.
I came to fully understand eBay’s immense reach early last year. My father had just died, and I was thinking a good deal about my boyhood. I had vivid early memories of his bringing me into a Manhattan that, in the early 1950s, could still support dozens of German restaurants (try and find one today) and sometimes he took me to one for lunch. These places—many of them 80 years old, and all of them designed at their birth to suggest a half-timbered Teutonic antiquity—felt venerable enough to impress even so callow a visitor as me, busy pulling apart my Wiener schnitzel (the apotheosis of my beloved diner “breaded veal cutlet") under hunting scenes and monumental steins, with the sense of ghostly predecessors tucking into the same meal at the same table in a world innocent of President Eisenhower, Howdy Doody, and automobiles.
The grandest of these places was Luchow’s, and one rainy Saturday last spring when I had summoned up enough virtue to go to the office but had run out of steam as soon as I got there, I called up eBay on my computer, typed in “Luchow,” and hit “find it.”
A plate! Big—14 inches—blue and white, bearing some sort of armorial device with the name of the restaurant worked into it. Bidding was already under way. I got in and won. And, when the plate arrived in the mail, I was strangely pleased. The thing was so forthright, so solid and bright, that Luchow’s might still have been doing business in its county-sized quarters on Fourteenth Street.
Back on eBay, I typed in “New York Restaurant.” I’d shuffled through flea markets and antiques shows for years and had never even seen a New York City restaurant plate; now, in a flickering, I had a chance to go after three of them. So I was hooked—and so, I suspect, have hundreds of thousands of others been on pursuing different fragments of the past.
Here is yet another way in which the seemingly allconquering modernity of the Internet is in fact building myriad information superhighways (a term itself moving toward antiquehood) to the past. We touch on this each issue in Julie M. Fenster’s column for the “History Now” department. Last month her “Buyable Past” featured Bakelite jewelry, this month the very high-end collectible of miniature portraits; Julie is no more likely to run short of subjects than the planet is of human beings.
When we inaugurated the column, a few issues back, we approached a historian rather than an antiques dealer to write it. Both till the same field, in a way, but we wanted to suggest what all those people who keep eBay sailing high above the wreckage of current NASDAQ misfortunes know—that history is a most powerful human appetite, and that acquiring a tangible piece of it is an act of historical passion. The 30-year-old who goes after a Star Wars lunch box may not think she is being driven by the same spur that sends somebody to study the muster rolls of the Continental Line. But she is.