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Growing up in Louisa – Collecting or Hoarding?

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

 I remember when I first noticed that some people would search for various kinds of things to add in their private collection. I think that revelation was born when I saw an extensive collection assembled by a family friend in Fort Gay. The lady of the house seemed to be heavily into salt and pepper shakers. She had nearly every conceivable size and shape lined up in window sills, on shelves, ledges, and in cabinets sprinkled all around the interior of her house. She had hundreds of styles that were mostly ceramic, or glass. They were whimsical and colorful, and exciting to see, especially if you were youthful. I remember one set that looked like little Dutch wooden shoes, but I think they were pottery. All the sets had those tell-tale holes on top. She explained that shakers commonly have only a few holes for pepper, apparently to prevent adding too much to a dish, and a lot holes on the salt shakers, saving time for those of us who like to sprinkle more heavily. The lady had fairy tale sets, movie themed sets, cowboy sets, book end sets, umbrella sets, penguin sets, bird sets, Model T sets, and many others I’ll never recall, but you get the idea.

When I was surveying her keepsakes, I could feel her steadily watching me. It became clear that she wanted to see this kid never got his hands on any of them. I knew from instinct that she a fear that I might inflict damage to a favorite set. I chalked it up to either a reflection of her intellect, or a general mistrust of children. Of course, she was right to watch me. While I would never intentionally do any of the shakers harm, my good intentions never seemed to stop me from inflicting accidental mayhem in my wake. It was natural that serious collectors would keep a close eye when a male child was about. Maybe they did it for girls, too, but I wouldn’t know. Anyway, I adjusted to her watchful care and understood that she meant no personal insult.   

 I thought it was neat that folks took interest in saving items from the past, keeping items both old and new, but it made me wonder why. Reflecting further on the matter, I assumed that most people had limited funds, so buying things that weren’t needed made little economic sense. I then figured in my small, developing mind that perhaps they may have undergone periods of deprivation. I remembered that the adults of my day had lived through the Great Depression, and had suffered through periods of rationing during the war, as well. It was logical that some simply wanted to hold on to stuff out of the fear of scarcity. Likewise, that would explain why they didn’t often gift these items, or sell the stuff out of a fear of later regretting the loss.

This may not only describe our parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins twice removed, but also the remaining grandchildren. I remember later meeting a man that collected string. I admit that twine is useful to hold things together such as packages, or fenders found hanging loose on the old car, or for using in the garden to train green beans, and for a myriad of other causes that would pop up. It provided a fast, temporary fix. ‘Ripley’s’ or ‘Guinness World Records’ show pictures of huge balls of twine that where collected over time setting world records. Nonetheless, keeping string seemed a bit weird to this young kid.   

In the early nineteen-hundreds, tin foil was replaced by aluminum foil in the packaging of food, but it wasn’t until around the time of WWII that aluminum foil was packaged and sold to the housewife for kitchen use. Thrifty housewives washed and saved it back for a day when it could be needed again. Considering again that the war just ended and that the drive to collect things made of metal was over, it made sense to keep things such as that. Besides, the heavily marketed foil was inexpensive, so huge shiny inventories grew in many homes. I suppose some of these foil rolls exist still and are taking up space in a spare room, attic, barn, or basement.

 In writing this article I researched the endless lists of things that people collect. I know our family had a large collection of matchbook covers. Others collected the small cardboard match boxes that held the little wooden sticks. The larger kitchen matches were not collected as far as I know. Matches were handy in a culture that still remembered kerosene lamps and wood-burning stoves. To us it was the advertising on the cover. I recall that I sometimes spent time looking through our family collection of matchbook covers. One that I found was from the ‘Copa Cabana’ or some other night club in tropical Florida. Another was from the ‘Stork Club’ in New York City. I have no idea where we got those since I didn’t know anyone who had been to either state at that time. The matchbooks had advertising printed with pictures of grand hotels, rail lines, Florida oranges, cigar and cigarette brands, hotel chains, restaurants, shipping lines, and even air lines. Some were clearly art deco or art nouveau in styling, but others were photographic reproductions of common products sold at grocery stores. The real prize was any we had from another country, or in another language. Their real usefulness didn’t matter to a devout collector. I remember that some still had their matches intact, but most had been ‘used up.’ Either way, they were still collectable.

Considering that a lot of people smoked during those days, it follows that cigarette lighters were collected. The problem was that fancy lighters weren’t free. Many of the lighters were engraved with military symbols, company logos, and some were made by jewelry designers in gold and silver. I guess matchbooks were for the poor collector, but the more affluent would save Bronson, or Zippo lighters that reflected the wealth of the owners. I was told that some were given out to soldiers during the war, and some were gifted as company incentives, but to obtain large numbers for a collection, it was costly.

Some smokers collected ash trays including fancy art glass, pottery, and floor models made of metal to sit next to the stuffed chair. Today there’s a very active market of collecting humidors. A friend of mine bought a house that had a grand ‘lower-level’ den that included a walk-in humidor. The room had its own air-conditioning, and humidity controls. (The next room was a wine cellar that had its own systems, too.) He told me that the first owners sold the house to him at a discounted price because they ran out of money with all these and other ideas. My friend is spoiled, but wisely doesn’t smoke cigars. He hasn’t decided what to do with the room, or maybe just won’t tell me. Snuff bottles from China are expensive based on what I’ve seen on Antiques Roadshow. They are usually made from jade, but still tobacco related.

 Many folks like to collect militaria from various wars. One son of mine loves collecting WWII stuff, as did several good people I knew from back home. Prizes of war were used to trade for pocket knives, or other items the owner needed. The father of one of my ‘growing up’ friends collected tons of Civil War militaria including rifles, pistols, and even a cannon. Many readers shouldn’t have to guess who that was, but feel free to suggest a name if you want.

Whether we’re talking matchbooks, bottle caps, salt shakers, knick-knacks, buffalo nickels, pin ball machines, old cars, tea sets, or bull-whips, collectors are a big under-culture of our society and our economy. People collect comic books, coins, pocket watches, bugs, farm implements, milk jugs, dolls, toys, election buttons, travel posters, cameras, railroad paraphernalia, shoes, walking sticks, quilts, dollhouses, mugs, steins, vintage toys, or electric train sets, magazines (especially National Geographic). I know this isn’t close to an exhausted list, but it’s what comes to mind. Collectors are folks who are saving important elements of our history. Even President FDR collected butterflies and stamps, I think. I have no idea if HS Truman had collections; maybe piano keys?

The collectors love their hobby and actively pursue ‘great finds’ through estate sales, garage sales, auctions, and the internet. ‘New/old stock’ is a dream come true, referring to old inventory that was never sold, but remains in its packaging, as is. As people die off, the items left in estates continually recycle back through other collectors, or end up in museums. Sadly, some rare items are just tossed away by heirs who don’t know their value, don’t care, or don’t have the time to mess with finding out.

 I cannot leave the subject with mentioning that there are folks that collect everything. Usually, you can see that before you ever get to their front door. Often their yards are piled with rusting metal objects or architectural elements. A high number of outbuildings might be a clue. When listening to their personal history you’ll discover how they got to this place. We’ve seen them on episodes of ‘American Pickers.’ Sometimes it was a parent or grandparent that never threw things away, or that continually brought home things picked up on the roadside, or at auctions. While demolition contractors have performed a service by saving architectural pieces there are some that take it too far. I can’t be critical of those who keep our memories alive by rescuing those bits of artifacts that tell American’s story.

I must admit that I’ve seen collecting go overboard to the extent that even trash is kept. The home and outbuildings are with filled with what most of us would call junk, clutter, and trash. I’ve listened to some explain that they are ‘being good stewards.’ They repeat the axiom ‘waste not, want not.’ The more extreme behavior may be a condition called ‘obsessive hoarding.’ That can be passed down through generations as a ‘family trait.’ I have watched the television show ‘American Pickers’ and seen many examples of that very pattern. There is another TV program that is an intervention program called ‘Hoarders.’ Well intentioned people try to help those who cannot help themselves lost in that world that keeps everything.

With hoarders, the amount of trash that is saved surmounts any logical explanations. When home and buildings are full ‘to the rafters’ with things of little or no value, it is a symptom of an illness. An example I can personally testify about pertains to a house that my wife and I bought a few years ago. It was cute on the outside, but totally full of ‘stuff.’ Three generations of the same family lived in that house, but as successive families moved in, their belongings were just piled onto the old. We found that some things had value, but most were trash. One room had women’s and girl’s clothing piled so high that it took us hours to uncover furniture at the bottom of the pile. Amazingly, many of the dresses, skirts, and other clothing still had the original store tags. Much of it was dating back generations, but some had been newly acquired.

 Every room in the house had a pathway that allowed door access, but had piles of boxes, old records, furniture, toys, books, and everything conceivable blocking any reasonable use. The closets and windows were blocked. Magazines, many no longer published, old textbooks, parlor games, console radios, dishes, artwork (mostly dime-store pictures) were stacked with old newspapers and yesterday’s mail. The kitchen had cabinets with glassware from many generations including old jelly glasses, filling station premiums, some good, and some nice collectable china. To get to them we had to transverse dirty dishes and stacks of empty pizza boxes. Rodent droppings left a pungent odor and gave warning to what was found later. Total disinfection was called for and accomplished.

At least one generation had been in the military, so the house had its share of European and Asian objects that had been brought home, as a collectable. Some were expensive items, but others were of little or unknown value. One bedroom had rolls of fabric and many jars of buttons and other notions. The attic had Christmas decorations, electric trains, and boxes of more clothing. Scrap books were full of family pictures, and boxes were full of letters sent during the war or afterward.

We shared some with an auctioneer to sell, and donated most of the reusable furniture and things to our church, a rescue mission, and to friends. When we first surveyed the mess, only one bed and one bath were accessible. Life must have been like a prison, but maybe in another way it was security to the last owner. There’s comfort in being with familiar things, especially when you have personal connections with those who once owned them.   

Before I write too much about other people, I must admit that I collect fine art. After running out of walls to display things, and having some surplus on hand, I remembered the horror of the house I just described. I have decided I have all I need. I guess that collecting matchbooks back in the growing up period of my life, was interesting and a little fun. I briefly enjoyed obtaining militaria. I was pleased to find a family album that was full of early photos of relatives and a batch of other folks that can’t identify. Back in the day, most of us boys had baseball card collections. In fact, I wish I still had mine, but when I left for the military I never saw them again. No doubt these collections bring back memories and in a way, define some of who we are.

In this day of comparative plenty, it’s hard to understand the internal drives to hoard. I do sympathize and I also remind myself not to think poorly of them, or show them disrespect. We should help them if we can, but otherwise look past their out-of-step behavior and treat them as brothers and sisters. It’s all too easy to be caught up in the urge to save. It is a choice we all make, depending upon many influences from our past and present. For me, saving back things is best when those items remind me of another time and the friends and family that continue to dwell in my memories. Therefore, I wish you ‘good collecting.’ Write and tell me of your successes and experiences. Maybe I’ll share them with our readers. Thanks,   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.     

Comments  

0 #2 Michael Coburn 2017-07-17 17:37
At least it wasn't empty pizza boxes! I knew a lady that kept thimbles. Growing up I'd carry around dust, dirt and grime for a week. Doesn't count, I guess.
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0 #1 Bernard 2017-07-17 14:58
Great article Mike, I also have collected a few things in my time. First it was records, 33-1/3, 45's & 78's. Then on a move from Frankfort back to Louisa, the hot sun warped most of them. Then it was coins, really got into this, but my house burned to the ground & I lost most of them & the rest was so damaged, with little or no value. You speak of a poor man's collection; I have one, it's a glass cream can filled with books of matches. I've been saving them since my days in the Air Force & they are from all over the country, Japan, Korea, Canada and all the 50 states. Business don't have advertising matches any more, so that kind'a put a stop to this one. I figure I'm too old to start another one , ha ha. Keep them coming and "thanks for the memories". dear friend,.
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