Rinker on Collectibles: Basement Memories

The thought of living in a house that does not have an attic or basement is unimaginable. Collectors need storage space.  There is never enough.   I am no exception.  Linda’s and my home in Kentwood, Michigan, has a finished basement, perhaps lower level is a better description.  The good news is that in addition to the two bedrooms, full bath, and large L-shaped “family” room which serves as a den and my office, the finished basement also has two large storage rooms.

After buying our Kentwood home, Linda and I had storage shelving installed in them.  The shelves run from the floor to the ceiling along the walls.  In one room, a storage shelf unit with access from both sides is in the center.  A collector’s view of storage space is simple – every square inch is available space.

                [Author’s Aside #1:  Linda and I own a condo in Altamonte Springs, Florida.  Located on the second floor, it does not have attic or basement storage.  There is a large closet in the spare room that serves as my office, a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, and a storage closet in the sunroom (lanai room).  Storage space is at a premium.   There is no way I could live in the condo year around.  There is not enough room for the things I took down as it is.  A large open shelf unit lines the main wall in the living room.  It is full.  Installing shelving in the office closet will provide some additional storage space, but not enough long-term.  Several wall shelves are next, but there only is so much open wall space.

Linda’s solution is to sell the condo and buy a home in Florida.  Florida homes do not have attics or basements.  In addition, Florida’s humidity and insect issues are not favorable to antique furniture and paper ephemera.   I have no desire to subject my treasures to these stress levels.   Further, at this point in my life, I am maxed out in terms of housing square footage.  Upsizing is not in my future.  I am not certain downsizing is either, but….]

In past “Rinker on Collectibles” columns, I have written about how the attic located at my grandparents Prosser’s home at 717 High Street in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, influenced my love of antiques and collectibles.  Between the ages of four and one-half and six, it was the source of unlimited treasures that piqued my curiosity and led me down exploratory paths I would never have taken.

When my family moved to 51 West Depot Street in Hellertown, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1948, the row home in which we lived did not have an attic.  It did have an unfinished basement.  I never thought of the Depot Street basement in the same terms as I did the High Street attic.  Perhaps, it was because the Depot Street basement was an extension of the living space within my home there and the events that occurred in it and the objects found there were personal to me.  The objects in the High Street attic represented the past.  The Depot Street basement represented the present.

A February 2019 email from Gerry in Ocean Beach, New Jersey, that contained illustrations from a 1955-1956 Lionel booklet showing how to build a train layout in a basement containing a large coal furnace and coal bin was the catalyst that caused me to reflect upon my Depot Street basement memories.  The Depot Street basement had a large coal furnace, a coal bin, and my HO train layout.

At 78, the Depot Street basement is still as vivid in my memory as it was when I lived there from the fall of 1948 until I was married for the first time in 1962.  The basement transitioned as I grew up.  The coal furnace was converted to gas.   This allowed the coal bin, a separate room, to be cleaned out and converted to another storage area.  The effort to rid the room of coal dust is a story unto itself.  Evidence of the room’s use never was completely eradicated.  If I went back and asked the current owners of 51 West Depot Street if I could visit the basement, I most likely could find hidden evidence the house was once heated by coal.

                [Author’s Aside #2:  During multiple visits to Hellertown, I thought about knocking on the door of 51 West Depot Street, informing the person who answers that I grew up in the house, and asking permission to come inside and look around.  I never do it.  The primary reason is that I do not want to tamper with the memories I have, especially regarding the size of the rooms.  I am absolutely certain the spaces are much bigger in my memory than in reality.  Some things are better left alone.]

51 West Depot Street was a row house, the second house in from the left (west) in a row of six.  The basement was half in the ground and half above.  A set of steps led up to the front door.  The rear door opened into a landing located halfway up the steps leading from the kitchen to the basement.  The main section of the home was rectangular with the short ends facing north and south.  A shortened western extension front and back had the coal bin and wash area in the basement, the kitchen and nook on the first floor, and the bathroom and “little” room on the second floor.  The window on the raised basement in the south end of the extension allowed the coal truck driver to extend his coal chute through the window directly into the coal bin.

The interior stairway to the basement was off the eastern end of the kitchen.  When rounding the corner at the bottom of the stairs, one entered a large open space.  In the center of the large rectangular open section was a large coal furnace, essentially dividing the room in half.   A wooden wall extending out from the junction of the extension wall with main support wall for the front section of the house created a separate room that provided additional storage and workroom.  The area under the steps was another storage area.

The basement was a living entity.  My primary domain was the northern end of the large room with some infringement into the storage space under the steps.   My HO train platform resting atop a wooden support structure containing a center support and a shelf on each side paralleled the eastern wall.   This left the western half of that portion of the basement open.

The storage areas under the platform housed several collections such as my rocks and minerals as well as my Boy Scout equipment.  A line of orange crates, cheap (free for the taking behind the local grocery store) and practical storage for a child with limited funds, were located on the northern wall.

Although my parents kept the “good” card table and chairs in the living room closet, the second card table and chairs were kept under the basement stairs.  Hence, my basement area became a “hangout” area for friends and the Den for the Boy Scout Patrol to which I belonged.

Along the wall extending out from the coal bin was a glass door cupboard top and blind cupboard door base.  The top housed my mother’s canning efforts and the base vases and odds and ends kitchen items.  A 1920s, vertical, metal kitchen cabinet that held my father’s “it’s too good to throw out” things among which were more than a dozen working toasters, was adjacent to the cupboard.  The eastern wall of the southern section of the large rectangular room was filled with storage shelves.  A combination of open storage and boxes held useful objects that did not find a home in the main living area.

The “work” room had a bench along the western wall.  The work surface was waist high.  The bottom was closed storage and home to the Christmas decorations and toy train platform material.  On the top of the bench was a desk unit that served as storage for small tools and repair objects ranging from fuses and washers to nails and screws.

                [Author’s Aside #3:   The desk unit actually was the center section of the cupboard unit.  When I sold the house, I had the cupboard desk unit restored.   I used it for over 20 years before giving it to Harry Jr.]

When I started to write this column, I resolved it would not become a series.  I shared less than 25 percent of the basement memories from the hastily written list that I created in advance of writing this column.  I reserve the rest for “my mind only,” the James Bond pun definitely intended.

In the course of my professional career and lifetime, I visited hundreds of basements.  Each trip was an adventure, many worthy of a separate column.  I have chosen to keep these memories personal as well.

My basement memories aside, did you grow up in a home with a basement?   If yes and you would like to share those memories with me, email them to harrylrinker@aol.com


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 harrylrinker@aol.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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