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What Do You Collect—Or—Is There Anything You Don’t?

by Letha Berry (04/26/09).

While I was browsing around at a antique show I attended recently, one of the booths’ dealers asked me, “So, what do you collect?” For some, that would seem to be a question that could be answered in a rather straightforward manner. After a momentary pause, I gave my usual answer, “I collect vintage and antique dolls,” which is just a little less than truthful.

I think my love affair with “old things” formed when I was a young child growing up in the heart of Appalachia. I can close my eyes and see the tiny, two-room log cabin that my grandmother called home. On occasion, she would open a large trunk whose contents she would gingerly remove. These inspections for us children were an “eyes only” affair. She would patiently explain what each of the wondrous items brought forth from the trunk was, and then, after carefully rewrapping, it would be placed back into the trunk.

I have come to realize that my grandmother was the keeper of her family’s history. I think all families have one. Of all the items we were shown, the ones that still captivate my imagination are a watch, a cap and a handkerchief. These were not a part of our family, but were rather the last earthly items that belonged to an unfortunate Confederate solider who was killed while trying to return to his home in the South. Our family had, at least for a while, been the keeper of his history, as well. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice as she explained that “one day his family will come, and you are to give them these when they do.” Of course, his family never came to reclaim them. Unfortunately, these items, as well as much of my grandmother’s and our family’s history, were lost when her cabin burned. As I grew older, when I saw something similar to an item that had been in her home, I bought it. I never considered myself a collector then. I was just trying to “replace” that which had been lost.

As a newlywed in the early 1970s, it was easy to convince myself that we could more readily afford “old” furnishings from thrift shops or auctions. You see, I still wasn’t a collector. I was a “thrifty” wife. While we were shopping for our home, I persuaded my husband that an older home would be a much wiser investment because they were made so much better and had character that new, modern homes lacked. Now I was a “wise shopper.”

Even as we purchased and moved into our 150-plus-year-old home, it was easy to rationalize that purchasing new furnishings simply would not look correct in the house. We would need to find items that would match our “new” old home. I think this was the point that I became aware that I was a collector of “old things.”

I find that there are so many different things that I am drawn to that I would probably need a warehouse instead of a home if I could purchase everything that I would like. My collecting now mainly centers on dolls and a variety of antiques, including Victorian mourning items, ephemera and children’s books and clothing. My main collecting passion does still remain dolls, but I think, like many collectors, there are so many interesting and unusual items that it is almost impossible to limit yourself. Or is at least that is the case for me.

July 1794 Magazine and Lady's Fan, 1904

July 1794 Magazine and Lady's Fan, 1904

I have several issues of The Lady’s Magazine. The one above is the July 1794 issue. Published by John Wheble in Great Britain, it was a monthly magazine and was among the first to be devoted to women. The cost was six pence (or roughly nine cents), and each issue contained articles of interest to ladies, such as patterns and fashion plates. The issues I have are in really good condition as they are printed on rag paper—a stronger type of paper, usually cotton based, which is more archival in quality. The fan is dated 1907 and was made by Raphael Tuck & Sons of London. It is actually a greeting card that would have been sent to a lady from her beau. She could then use it as a fan. I have only seen a few antique fans like these, but I have seen some beautiful, reasonably priced reproduction for sale.

Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser May 18, 1791

Dunlap's American Daily Advertifer May 18, 1791

I also have a small collection of newspapers dating from 1791 through the Civil War era. I can well remember the thrill of acquiring the above newspaper, to actually be holding a item that was current when George Washington was still our president. Dunlap’s American Daily Advertifer was a daily Philadelphia newspaper published by John Dunlap that cost four pence (roughly six cents). Publication was temporarily suspended because of yellow fever from Sept. 16-Nov. 30, 1793. This newspaper is also made of rag paper, which explains how it has survived in very good condition.

Children's Books 1854-1888 and Diary

Children's Books 1854-1888 and Diary

I think one reason that I am enamored with Victorian children’s books is not only that the stories they contain are very interesting, but they also taught children to be kind, patient and to love one another. I have found many inscriptions in my books that indicate they were given as Christmas or birthday gifts. The four pictured above are my favorites from my children’s book collection. They are beautifully illustrated, and each contains numerous stories and poems. The small diary was never used and contains its original pencil.

Victorian Hair Memorials

Victorian Hair Memorials

I have written several blogs about Victorian mourning rituals and items. I know that while some find these items morbid and some may find those of us who collect them to be slightly odd, I find them fascinating. It is not hard for me to imagine how dear these items were to those that were left behind: remembrances that kept the departed close. Each of the two flowers are made from human hair and measures 5 inches long and date to the 1870s. The brooch in the middle is from the 1860s and is 2 inches wide. I have read several books on how these items were made, and to me, it would take a true artist to turn out items of such delicacy and beauty.

Antique Dolls, circa 1860-1900

Antique Dolls, circa 1860-1900

I guess this takes me back to my first love, antique dolls. Oh, the childhood secrets and stories these children’s toys could tell us if we could but listen. The bisque-head doll on the left is simply marked with a # 5 and is 13 inches tall. The china-head doll in the center is 12 inches tall and dates to the 1860s. The doll on the right is 16 inches tall, dates to 1875 and is a wax over papier-mâché.

Each antique we touch is a lesson in history. They have the ability to transport us back to another time, to tell us their stories of a bygone era. Isn’t it wonderful the many things we can find to be the caretakers of for our short time here?

I hope you have enjoyed a small glimpse into some of the items that I collect. So what do you collect? I’d love to know.

Letha Berry is a Worthologist who specializes in dolls and accessories, but has several other interests as well.

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12 Responses to “What Do You Collect—Or—Is There Anything You Don’t?”

  1. Chris Hughes Chris Hughes says:

    Letha,

    Nice article. Thank you for sharing your collecting interests and images of your treasures.

    I find it difficult to answer the question “What do you collect” in a concise manner because I have levels of collecting which include:

    1. Items I am reading about and studying, but not collecting yet. With most collectibles you have to really get educated and know what you are looking at before spending any money. Always buy reference books first!

    2. Items I am very hot after and think about 24/7.

    3. Items I’ve seriously collected in the past, but still have interest in.

    Usually, when I am asked what I collect, I respond with what I am currently hot after, but I am capable of talking shop on a multitude of subjects because if it’s old, historical, or well made, I am probably interested in it on some level!

    I’ve always been interested in militaria, so that’s typically my response when asked what I collect. Lately, I’ve been studying WWI and WWII military firearms with the intent of acquiring investment grade examples for my collection. I’ve owned lesser examples over the years, but to go after the 98%+ condition examples, you have to seriously study up and build your network.

    My favorite parts about collecting are researching and learning, daydreaming about future scores, and making friends with other collectors.

    —Chris

  2. Letha Berry Letha Berry says:

    Chris,

    My passion lies in my dolls but I think there are many collectors who find so many things that interest them. I started to collect old newspapers because I was interested in seeing how events were being reported at that time they actually occured. One of my saddest experience as a collector was a Christmas gift from my sister. She had located an original newspaper from London the June 28 1838 edition on the Royal Coronation of Queen Victoria. It was framed and I was instructed to open it as soon as it arrived…and arrived it did all 5000 pieces of it. It was very poorly packed and I was so saddened. Here was a piece of history that had survived for 168 years and was reduced to mostly dust, Thinking about this my experience might make a nice article on proper packing of fragile items.

    I think collecting children’s books was just a natural extension of my dolls as I pose them as if they are reading them….but my interest in mourning items is hard to explain to most people explain.

    You are right about reading and becoming knowledgeable prior to purchasing. I have always found that learning is a wonderful part of collecting and building a good reference library is a must in my opinion. I also think belonging to a group that shares your interest is a excellent way to increase your knowledge. I know doll collectors love to mentor and share with new collectors.

    My brother has been a collector of militaria for about 45 years and is considered an expert by many people. He has wonderful and extensive collection of WW II militaria including firearms.

    Letha

  3. Chris Hughes Chris Hughes says:

    Letha,

    Ask your brother to visit my WorthPoint profile at http://www.worthpoint.com/profile/index and send me an email. It’s always nice to meet fellow WWII collectors!

    Best,

    Chris Hughes

  4. Letha Berry Letha Berry says:

    Tina,

    Thank you. I always find it interesting to learn what others are either collecting or are interested in. I find that collecting one thing generally leads to other areas of collecting. I would love to know what you are interested in or are currently collecting.

    Letha

  5. Letha Berry Letha Berry says:

    Chris,

    I will point him to you. He loves to discuss militaria.

    Letha

  6. Pattie says:

    Hi I loved your article. I, too am a collector of all things old, whether they are worth anything or not, I am drawn to the different era’s. I have 2 old dolls that I came upon that are actually so old that I am scared to touch them too much :)
    I would be glad to take a picture of them and send to you if you will email me a place to send them. Thank IO look forward to corresponding with you
    Pattie —
    email psa1954@comcast.net

    • Letha Berry Letha Berry says:

      Hi Pattie,

      There are many factors that needs to be considered when assessing the value of an antique doll. Probably the most important factor is the condition of the doll.. Also other important considerations are it’s rarity, originality and the type of doll you have. The visual appeal of a doll can also increase it’s value.

      If you enjoy researching and are interested in learning more about antique or vintage dolls there are a wide variety of doll books and price guides on the market. These can offer valuable information plus the chance to see photographs of wonderful dolls. One thing to remember is that even though price guides can be very helpful in determining value ranges for different types of dolls, they should be viewed as a guide only.

    • Mary Brenneman Mary Brenneman says:

      Pattie,
      I’d also like to add–If you are interested in seeking an unbiased expert opinion on your dolls you might consider using the “Ask A Worthologist” form at https://www.worthpoint.com/askWorthologist/index . An evaluation of your item, which includes an estimated price range of its fair market value, will be provided based on details and photos you provide.
      Mary

  7. Pattie says:

    To Chris I also love anything of WW II militaria including firearms. I currently came across an ol ww11 M1 or so I have been told it is 1942-1944, I have yet to take to a gun dealer to see what it really is but I will some day soon any info you can share on metals or anything please email me thanks

    • Chris Hughes Chris Hughes says:

      Pattie,

      I’m guessing the serial number on the receiver is what you are basing the date of your rifle from. If it’s a completely original WWII era Garand, you have a very collectible firearm. The majority of Garands were refurbished post war for use in Korea.

      —Chris

  8. Really fun post.

    For me the question is really an element of different times in my life. As a young collector my areas of interset were in Victorian Mourning Jewlery, Eye Miniature painting, Hair painted memorial Jewlery, Whitby Jet, French Jet, Music Boxes, Ohio Pottery, Art Glass, Vintage Ladies Books (Godey’s Ladies Book, Modern Priscilla being the favs), Jensen Silver, Art Deco Furniture, Vintage Fashion Dolls, Steif animals, Madame Alexander country dolls, fashion plates, vintage fashion sketches, hats, scarves, Art Deco Jewlery, Bakelite, Stamps, Coins, and Vintage Textiles. So as a young girl I would say that I collected just about anything as any good Taurus should. :)

    The love of textiles even lead to my final masters degree in historical textile preservation from OSU. But with anything timing, environment, and the place I was in my life really started to dictate my collecting habits. I was raised in an environment where anything old was a good thing and suddenly I was married to a wonderful man that believed in everything new was good. If it was electronic and a gadget it was even better. Not that he didn’t appreciate classic modern designs, but a certain negative feeling about things that were viewed as morbid. Suddenly Ohio Pottery that once graced my shelves were replaced by animie figures of projects we worked on. So I was really faced with a different world. (Though much easier to dust glass and chrome than victorian woodwork)

    Collecting is a definite passion or mine, and I have slowly started to collect Jensen silver again since that seems to fit the person I have become as an adult. But sometimes I still think of that fantasy art deco home lite by candlelight in the evening w/ the black lacquer shining by the fire .

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