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

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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