The Last Two Centuries Flew by at Warp Speed
When we bought our house back in the 1990s, the prior owner gave us this photo of the house as it stood 100 years ago, along with one of its’ prior unnamed inhabitants.
As we are bracing for maybe the last round of snow storm this week, it reminds me of a recent a whopper of a storm here in Maine that gave us enough snow to last us until May. On that night, a mile up the road from our house, a huge oak tree fell across the road around midnight, taking the electrical wires with it, plunging our side of town into a frozen, still night.
I was on my way home from work, and had to pull over and park my old truck on the side of the road, and go the last mile on foot. I walked down the center of the unplowed road, my big snow boots silenced by the fluffy snow underfoot.
I was struck by how absolutely placid my surroundings now were. The wind had stilled, and the sky had opened to a full moon, that sparkled light off the snowflakes draping the trees. My truck’s engine, and the blasting music from the radio, were now gone. As I made my way down our road into the frozen night, I put myself back in time. Back to the first English settlers and the Abenaki Indians who survived long cold winters right along this old roadway more than 200 years ago.
This old lamp post was made for use in the outdoors, and held a candle. It has an air vent in the top, and glass windows, so that it could light the way for visitors to find the top of your path. We used it this year on Christmas night.
I looked off into the forest, and I tried to imagine spending every icy cold night like this, sleeping on the floor of a teepee, just waiting for the sun to rise again. I passed an old Colonial home, now darkened, with just the light from a single candle visible through the porch window. I imagined a family inside, back when the house was new, singing Christmas carols around the fire, accompanied by a fiddle, the sound carrying out across the quiet landscape. This night without heat and electricity would have been the same as every night they had ever known, and they would be fully prepared for it. And if it was Christmas Eve, they might have a wild turkey plucked and ready to cook for dinner the next day—it might even be an ancestor bird of the wild turkeys that wander across our yard today.
When I got home to the house, my wife and kids were already scurrying around, searching out flashlight batteries and candles, and building a fire in the fireplace and pulling the sofa up next to it. We sat and watched the fire, and felt the house grow colder around us. I talked to them about how different life was today, compared to the people who occupied our old New England Cape 200 years ago.
This old granite hitching post is where visitors could hitch up their horses if they were stopping by for a visit.
When the power goes out, we dig out the old bellows to stoke up the fire, same as they did 200 years ago. This particular bellows is a nice carved one from the Victorian era. There isn’t a huge market for antique bellows as an antique collectable, but if you live in an old home it is great to have one that is original, and true to the time period of your home.
There has never, ever been a 200-year period of time where life for the average person has changed so drastically.
If you look at the Stone Age, back 5,000 years ago, and you take it in 500-year chunks, and a person back then did a similar introspection to how their life and changed from one generation to the next, there was virtually NO change at all! Whatever you ate, they ate it 500 years later. Whatever clay bowl they ate out of, they used the same type of bowl a full 500 years later.
The Bronze age was 2,000 years ago. Even the Iron age, and around the time of the birth of Christ, the advances and changes in a person’s daily life century after century, was miniscule. But during this 200-year slice of time on the planet, daily life began to change decade by decade, year by year, to the point where it feels now like our daily lives change on an almost weekly basis.
I dug this old brandy bottle from a riverbank near our home. It is easy to imagine an old timer sipping “Christmas cheer” from it.
The old oak tree that fell in front of my truck started as an acorn and grew to a mighty tree. And in its lifespan there was more change than there was during the thousand years prior. That tree at the edge of the road was passed by Native Americans on horseback, an old stage coach carrying parishioners to the church that still stands on our corner, and the old Model A Ford that our neighbor has stored in his barn. Not to mention my friend’s electric car, using Google Maps that “speaks” street directions to him via a signal off of a cell phone tower on Raitt’s Hill.
As I looked around our home that night I was reminded why I am fascinated by New England antiques. There are objects in my home that transcend time. And the time they transcended flew by at warp speed, in terms of how our daily lives have changed.
Most of the antiques I’ve specialized in over the years have been “found” objects—antique medicine bottles, old farm tools, marbles, relics etc. I don’t think there is another avocation which can put you in touch with the human experience, and the passage of time, more than collecting utilitarian antiques and collectables.
Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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