Rinker on Collectibles: A Tribute to America’s Attics (At Least to those that still Remain)

What’s in your attic, um, assuming you have an attic?

America’s attic as a storage and living space is an endangered species. Although every home has an attic, less than 15 percent of modern homes have an attic with sufficient ease of access to store things, let alone hide, play or live in it. I am astonished it took me so long to realize this. The obvious has been staring me in the face for decades.

My family moved into our row home at 52 West Depot St., Hellertown, Pa., in 1948. It had a small attic, but no easy access. My parents never stored anything in it. We stored things in the large, unfinished basement, gaining extra storage space in the coal bin after the furnace had been converted to gas. My first home, a ranch style house on 2150 Drury Lane, Bethlehem, Pa., also did not have an attic. It had a finished basement and basement crawl space. The same applied to my large Colonial Revival home at 39 West Springettsbury Ave. in York, Pa.

In 1977, I rented 414 West Third St. in Bethlehem. This row house, built prior to the Second World War, had a staircase leading to a low-ceiling attic. I had to bend over, but a shorter person did not. It served as a bedroom and storage area. In 1980, when my second wife Connie and I built our solar-powered home at 7002 Carl’s Hill Rd., Zionsville, Pa., we included storage space above the closet in the foyer, a crawl space beneath the foyer, and an unfinished storage room off my office. Once again, there was no attic.

There was no attic storage in the townhouse that Linda and I rented at 22 Stillwater Circle in Brookfield, Conn. The second floor was finished. While there had to be an access door to the attic, I have no memory as to where it was located. Linda and I moved to Kentwood, Mich., at the end of January 2011. I never looked in the attic since we lived here. In fact, prior to writing this article, I searched the upper floor looking for an access panel to the attic. I found it in the walk-in closet off the master bath. Access is available only via a tall ladder, something we do not own. There is no drop-down stairway.

Given my personal experiences, why was I operating under the false assumption that the American attic as a source of future hidden treasures was alive and well? The answer is simple and complex. First, one deeply entrenched attic memory clouded my observation analysis. Second, I have visited more than 100 attics in my appraisal and home visit experiences. I assumed an attic was typical rather than atypical.

From 1946 until the fall of 1948, my parents, brother and I lived with my mother’s parents at 414 High Street, Bethlehem, Pa. Halfway down the second floor hallway was a door that opened to a set of stairs leading up to a large attic. I could stand up in it, due in part because I was considerably shorter than my current six-foot, three-inch stature.

The High Street attic was a source of wonder, mystery and adventure. Although it was unfinished, my Uncle Bill, who was in high school at the time, had established a chemistry laboratory, thanks to an A. C. Gilbert Chemistry set, near the sill of the front dormer overlooking High Street. In addition to his childhood toys, there also were toys from his older brother Earl. Earl had married and left the house. Bill was preoccupied with schoolwork and maintaining his matchbook collection that, which displayed across the walls of his room on rows of string held at each end by thumbtacks. There was no one to tell me not to touch.

This large, vintage 1940s, A.C. Gilbert Co. chemistry set is similar to the one my Uncle Bill set up in the attic of my grandmother’s High Street, Bethlehem, Pa., house. It sold for $19.95 in 2011.

While the toys were fun, the real treasures were found in long eaves extending back across the sitting room, dining room and kitchen. There were stacks of pictures (ancestors, prints and framed documents) along with boxes and trunks filled with clothes, clothing accessories, ceramics, glass, souvenirs and other family memorabilia. The boxes were open; the trunks unlocked. I explored them all. More than 67 years later, I still can picture the High Street attic as vividly as the moment I saw it climbing its steps for the first time in 1946. If any of the items from that attic survived, I am unaware of them. Uncle Bill still bemoans the loss of his chemistry set.

I lost track of the number of attics I have visited as a result of my appraisal work and visits with collectors. The quality attic ranged from highly organized to total disaster. I saw and found treasures, hundreds of them. I still do. The antiques and collectibles business has thrived on family discards that have substantial secondary market resale value.

Having grown up in a Pennsylvania German culture that subscribes to the premises that things are “too good to throw out” and there may come a time when “I will need it,” the attics became a storage place for obsolete and/or older models of objects such as cameras, children’s clothing, furniture, toys, adult clothing and accessories, replaced furniture, kitchen appliances, luggage, phonographs, prints, radios, records, sewing machines, televisions, typewriters and much more. Beds, along with their bedsprings and mattresses, are standard fare.

Attics stored seasonal objects; holiday decorations being the most common. Some attics contained a walk-in cedar closet designed to safely store winter outfits, especially furs. Summer clothing found its way into trunks, also stored in the cedar closet if it was large enough.

In the early 1960s, when I visited my Aunt Verna’s and Uncle Kermit’s home in Cape Coral, Fla., for the first time, I observed it had no attic or basement. Discovering that most Florida homes lacked these basement and attic amenities, I commented that there was no way I could live in such an environment. I have since learned not to make such broad generalizations. Linda’s and my condo in Altamonte Springs, Fla., has no attic, basement or independent storage unit. Every time Linda suggests that we retire and live there full time, I cringe. If she keeps it up, I am likely to have a heart attack.

As indicated earlier, memory is a tricky commodity. In the course of writing this article, I tried to remember the last time I visited an attic during a walk-through or written appraisal. The more I thought about the question, the more concerned I became. Although I did several dozen walk-through appraisals in the past year, I do not remember one of them having an attic. There was no instance where I pulled down a set of steps and climbed up simply to take a peek.

I spent more than half an hour conducting various internet searches in an attempt to determine when the attic was no longer an integral part of a majority of American home designs. I failed to find an adequate answer. Applying common sense, the decline had to occur with the arrival of the ranch home and suburbia in the period immediately following World War II. Depression-era economics may have contributed. The desire for a finished basement and the back-to-front split-house style were factors. The arrival in the 1960s and 1970s of the backyard storage shed also played a role.

Attics do survive in older homes—those built in the 19th or early 20th century. While I can offer no concrete proof other than my best guesstimate, most have been repurposed into apartments or living spaces as opposed to storage spaces.

The attic as a source of hidden treasures from the past is endangered. America’s tradition as a nation of savers is diminishing. Newer generations are more likely to discard or recycle unwanted objects instead of saving them. As such, they do not require large amounts of storage space.

I end each hour of “Whatcha Got?”, my syndicated Sunday morning radio show, by asking my listeners to check their “attics, basements, closets, garages and sheds” and assemble a pile of items for the purpose of calling into my show in subsequent weeks and asking about them. Do I have to rethink including “attics” as part of that list? I wonder.

Do you have an attic memory or memories you would like to share? E-mail your stories to harrylrinker@aol.com.

As a dedicated accumulator (I have long passed collector status), I find I cannot resist the temptation to start a new collection. This column has inspired me to search for photographs and other images of attics used for storage. If you have an image you would be willing to share or sell, send me an e-mail.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2014

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4 Comments

  1. Cynthia says:

    What a great article. I remember the home I grew up in (from the time I was brought home from the hospital at a few days old, until the day I was married) having an attic which was “finished”. After my younger sister was born, my brother who was the oldest child was given the attic as his own room. There were two large closets which were still used as storage, as was a portion of the larger area. After my brother was married, my parents used it as their room. It still was large enough for plenty of storage. I remember the fun of going through all those treasures that had been accumulated over the years by my parents and older siblings. Even those things which I had outgrown were fun to come across when I was older. It will be interesting to see what your readers send in!

  2. J. Boling says:

    My best attic memory happened in 1975 in Grants Pass, OR. A friend asked me to look at a building he was buying, with an eye to up-dating the electricals. It had been built around the turn of the century as a “dry goods store,” with a “dry” apartment in the attic where the owners lived. At some point, the downstairs had been remodeled; the stairs leading up were removed, and the ceiling lowered. I found an access through a louvered vent at the rear, and felt, upon shining my flashlight around inside, like I’d discovered King Tut’s tomb. Long story short: In 1927 the Rogue River flooded the community and ALL the inventory had been moved upstairs – never to be seen again, until that fateful day in ’75! We never found out WHY the owners never returned and claimed their goods, but it was all there – clothing, glassware, dishes, tools, boxes and cartons of food and medicines, etc., etc.! All “full and labeled,” as they say. Imagine the excitement as he rushed to sign the closing papers on the property! He recovered eight times the purchase price of the entire property when he sold off the contents of that “forgotten attic.”

  3. Linda says:

    Loved your article and memories it evoked. My favorite is as a 5 year old playing with a neighbor friend in her attic/playroom. Access was a very narrow stairway adjacent to her sister’s room. Part of the attic was storage but the best part was a child size “house” outfitted with play stove, sink, cupboard and table plus chairs and lamps. We played for hours in this special little corner of the attic.
    Our first home was build in 1912 with a full basement and full sized attic accessed by a narrow stairway. It was a marvelous place to store things in and we have not had such wonderful storage space in the five homes we have lived in since. The only problem with that attic was the bat and racoon we had to exterminate after house painters left an attic window ajar.

  4. Ray says:

    The home I grew up in was built in 1917 in Cleveland,Ohio. It had a huge full,stand-up attic with a full stairway going up. I have many fond memories of playing in and discovering treasures in that attic. It changed from unfinished to half-finished in the 42 years I lived there, but the unfinished part always served as storage for “treasures”. A bygone era in the history of The U.S., for sure.