Collecting Expands the Collector’s Horizon
Harry Rinker says, “I am who I am because I collect. Collecting has taken me down paths I would never have traveled.”
Although reflection occurs continuously, it intensifies as a person gets older. Now in my late seventies, I spend an increasing amount of time reflecting how the choices I made during my life influenced and expanded my horizons. I started to make a list of some of the key choices: (1) deciding to attend Lehigh University instead of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (2) not moving back to Hellertown, Pennsylvania, my childhood home, when my mother died, and (3) going independent rather than continuing to pursue a career inside the museum profession. Of all the decisions, one overshadows the rest. The decision to collect.
I am who I am because I collect. Collecting has taken me down paths I would never have traveled. Collecting has made and continues to make my life an adventure.
My collecting paths are many. A partial list includes the hunt, researching objects, understanding the historical context in which objects originated and survived, interacting with collectors and others associated with collecting, sharing my knowledge through writing and education endeavors, and the sheer joy of touching and preserving the past.
This column focuses on how collecting expanded my geographical horizons and helped me understand that I am not a member of a narrow but rather a worldwide community. It is a brief chronicle about a journey from a provincial mindset to one that continues to expand.
I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 1, 1941. My parents lived on Dundalk Avenue in Dundalk. Although I have a few memories of my home there, none involve collecting.
My collecting memories begin shortly after my parents moved to 717 High Street, home of my Prosser grandparents, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Although a “big” city, my geographical horizon was limited to a neighborhood three blocks in width and four blocks in length bounded by Union Street on the north, Linden Street on the east, North Street on the south, and Center street on the west. I was allowed to roam freely within these confines. It was there that I picked up my first match covers from the gutter, an ominous beginning to my collecting career.
Since collecting often is memory driven, I benefited from my parents’ large nuclear family. I had 28 aunts and uncles and 29 first cousins. A list of great aunts and uncles and second cousins more than doubles the number. A visit to each home provided a select chronological exposure to objects that spanned over a century—from 19th century Victorian, to 1920s and 1930s Colonial Revival to Mid-Century Modern. I was fortunate to remember much of what I saw. At the time, I had no concept how well these memories would serve me later.
When my family moved to Hellertown, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1948, I lived on Depot Street, two houses up from the railroad tracks. Just across the track was Saucon Creek. Saucon Creek was a land of adventure, especially the remains of abandoned homesteads and the Saucon Iron Works. The Saucon Iron Works was home to owls. I discovered owl pellets and collected them. My mother was not happy when she learned I was taking them apart to study the bones they contained. Reflecting back, it was my first introduction to the concept that colleting is not limited just to household objects.
I joined the Boys Scouts when I was 11. My first merit badges were “The Big Three”—Coin Collecting, Rocks and Minerals, and Stamp Collecting. In theory, stamp collecting and to some degree coin collecting should have expanded my worldly horizons. They did not. Coins and stamps did not engender a high level or curiosity. Rocks and minerals did. Initially, I was attracted to them because they were free. Identification and origin questions fascinated me.
During my scouting career, I traveled by train from Pennsylvania to New Mexico to hike the trails at the Philmont Scout Ranch in 1955 and then attend the 1957 National Boy Scout Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Collecting is an integral part of scouting. Camp patches, neckerchiefs and neckerchief slides, and Order of the Arrow patches are the tip of the iceberg. I collected them all. Scouting introduced me to boys from every region of the United States and around the world.
[Author’s Aside #1: I still have my red Philmont jacket upon which are sewn dozens of patches for which I traded at the Valley Forge Jamboree.]
While in High School, I became friends with Robert “Bobbie” Hoppes, a science teacher with a love of local history. During my junior year, we worked on a project to photograph all the one-room school houses and other school buildings in Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township. Robert Hoppes showed me the value found in preserving local history and pride in one’s roots.
During my junior year, I also obtained a job as a guide at Lost River Caverns, owned by the Gilman family. In addition to owning the cave, the Gilman family also supplied lapidary supplies to local rock hounds and imported mineral specimens from around the world. My knowledge of world geography expanded. A midnight trip to Franklin, New Jersey, to hunt fluorescent minerals is a memory that still brings a smile. During my first visit to Germany in 1968, I visited the Idar Oberstein cabochon factories on behalf of the Gilmans.
I saved things during my college career but did not collect. In the summer of 1966, while working for Historical Bethlehem, Inc., the Canal Society of New York State made a field trip to the Lehigh Valley to explore the remains of the Lehigh Canal. A request to Historical Bethlehem for a guide that knew the region resulted in my being assigned to the advanced group. Two days later I became the president of the newly created Pennsylvania Canal Society.
My presidency became my collecting catalyst. I immediately started to collect canal memorabilia. In addition, I wanted to learn all I could about the American canal systems. Weekends and vacations were spent visiting canal sites and hunting for material. I visited hundreds of towns I would never have visited had they not been “canal towns.”
In 1968, during my visit to Germany, I spent four weeks in East Germany doing research at the Moravian Archives in Herrnhut on behalf of Historic Bethlehem and Old Salem. While there, I made a quick study of local ceramics and furniture. I found many historical antecedents for the Moravian ceramics and furniture located in Bethlehem. I learned that objects do not exist in isolation. A historical perspective is essential to understanding them.
[Author Aside #2: While I was in Herrnhut, the Russian Army moved into the area in advance of combined Warsaw Pact maneuvers with Czechoslovakia. The main headquarters was two miles south of Hernnhut. What happened after that is a tale for another time.]
While serving as the Executive Director of the Historical Society of York County between 1972 and 1977, my appreciation for my Pennsylvania German heritage and its origin grew. My tenure ended with a decision that I did not want to collect for an institution but rather for myself. While in York, I started collecting Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia and became friends with Ted Hake. More than anyone else, Hake convinced me of the importance of the 20th century collectible. It was a major turning point in my career.
When I left the Historical Society of York County, I began my career as an independent, first as a consultant to museums and ultimately as owner of Rinker Enterprises, Inc, my antiques and collectibles research and educational center. I also began collecting family material.
By this time, my collecting reached a point where I no longer felt constrained. I collected anything that caught my fancy. Collecting became an adventure fueled by a desire to learn everything I could about every object in my collection.
Finally, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the internet. I was aware that collecting was a worldwide phenomenon prior to the internet. I always brought back antiques and collectibles from any foreign country I visited. The internet opened my eyes and mind to the strength and depth of worldwide collecting. It also helped me understand the movement of antiques and collectibles between countries and how it changed over centuries.
Collecting is a game changer. How has your collecting expanded your geographical horizons? Share your experiences with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.
You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.
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