Saturday, September 1, 2012

Centennial Post: Odyssey of a Collector

Almost unbelievably, this is my 100th post for the blog I began in 2009, called Bottles, Booze and Back Stories.   Over ensuing months,  I have tried to keep the presentations varied, in accord with the subtext,  “A blog about more things than you can shake a stick at.”  For this centennial post,  I have decided to address my journey through a lifetime of collecting.

Like many youngsters in the 1940s and 1950s,  I started by collecting postage stamps.  President Franklin Roosevelt was a stamp collector and the hobby was highly popular.  For a kid it put you in touch with foreign countries and images that stretched the imagination.  My interest extended into the early 1960s when I worked across the street from a Gimbel’s Department Store in Milwaukee that featured a large stamp department.  My particular interest was in stamps featuring American Presidents,  including FDR and, after his death, John Kennedy.

By the 1970s, my interest in postage stamps had waned and I began selling off the foreign stamps and using the U.S. stamps on mail.  About the same time, my interest soared for collecting first editions of the American author, Sherwood Anderson.   I had done my master’s thesis on Anderson,  was communicating with his widow, and contemplated writing a book about him.  My long-suffering bride endured a New York City honeymoon during which we spent much of our time pawing through the dust of used book stores trolling for Anderson’s works.

In the mid-1990s I drove the Anderson volumes to Milwaukee and donated them to the rare book section of the library at Marquette University, the school where I had first become acquainted with the American author.  The university did me the kindness of issuing a press release about my contribution and, for a while, putting the books on display.  I took a tax deduction.

Meanwhile a new collecting passion had emerged.  While visiting Jakarta Indonesia on a business trip in 1978,  I was taken to Jalan Surabaya,  a street  with a giant open air flea market where artifacts from around the world are sold.  There I found three highly decorated British whiskey jugs, like nothing I had ever seen before.  For US$100 I bought them all and was able to ship them, undamaged, back to my home.

That triggered a passion for whiskey jugs, both American and British, that lasted for some two decades.  During that time I amassed a group of several hundred, large and small.  It also launched my writings on jugs, bottles and other collectibles that now exceed 400 articles in magazines and newsletters in the U.S., Britain, Australia and Canada and include three self-published books.

By the late 1990’s the whiskey jugs seemed to be crowding my wife and me out of the house. Subsequently, in three auctions I sold off, and profitably so, the “high end” British and American jugs.  Other items were sold at bottle shows.  More recently, I contributed  80 less valuable whiskey ceramics to the Getz Whiskey Museum at Bardstown, Kentucky, which has been very gracious about the gift.

As the process of devolving the whiskey jugs was proceeding,  I noted that a great many hillbilly ceramics had been issued as souvenirs during the period 1940-1970.  These artifacts were a product of automobile tourism made possible by the hardening of roadways, capped by the development of the interstate system.   The hillbilly was the last ethnic group that safely could be caricatured but even that era was ending.  As a result, I set out to collect as many ceramic hillbilly souvenirs as possible as expressions of Americana that were not likely to be replicated in the future.  The collection included pottery ashtrays, salt and peppers shakers, coffee mugs, plates, and jugs. Because they were common and inexpensive, I was able to amass some 100 hillbilly ceramics in the space of three years.

From the outset my purpose for this collection was eventually to give it to a museum or library.   Looking around for a suitable place to donate the items in 2005, I came across the Appalachian Life Museum at the University of North Carolina - Boonesboro.   The museum’s curator was fascinated,  drove to my Virginia home, and picked all but a few, and drove them back to North Carolina.  Although the museum later lost its space at the university,  my hillbillies remain in good hands.

After disposing of the whiskeys and the hillbillies I was searching for a new collection.  The objects had to be less space-filling than the whiskey jugs but something that would hold more interest than postage stamps.  They also had to be artifacts that were commonly being sold on internet sites like eBay. After much thought, beginning about  2006 I focussed on glass paperweights.  Because of my interest in the pre-Prohibition American whiskey industry, I largely have concentrated on U.S. weights that advertise liquor.   Right now, that collection numbers approximately 87 items, the majority of them from the pre-Prohibition era.  Because of their  modest size, paperweights can be stored easily.  Much of the present collection is housed in a six-drawer former thread cabinet that sits on the desk in my office.

Residual elements of all my former collections remain with me.  My U.S. Presidents stamps and a few others sit in albums in the basement. About two dozen whiskey jugs, old favorites, still decorate our family room.  Fourteen hillbilly items look down on me as I sit at my computer writing this 100th post.  Several of Sherwood Anderson’s books,  purchased after my gift to Marquette,  repose on a shelf behind me.

With advancing age I am coming to the end of the collecting road.  It has been an odyssey of almost 70 years to accumulate -- and often later to dispose of -- items of interest.  Each collection in its turn has expanded my knowledge and understanding as well provided  material for hundreds of articles.  Most of all, I suppose, my collecting has been a lot of fun.

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