RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #1648
Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2018
A Dilemma I Never Saw ComingI often am asked: when did I start collecting? My initial response is to tell people I still have the bassinet in which I was brought home from the hospital. While true, I did not collect it. In fact, it was passed down to other members of my mother’s family once I no longer needed it. Although not certain when it came back into my mother’s possession, I suspect she tracked it down when she found my first wife was pregnant. My mother had it cleaned up and repainted. I carried Harry Junior home from the hospital in it in early January 1967.
Before I collected, I accumulated. My earliest accumulation memories involve vacation trips to Seaside Heights, New Jersey, where I walked the beach accumulating sea shells. I had two goals—build a big pile and pick up anything that intrigued me. When my parents moved from Dundalk, Maryland, to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1946, I was fascinated by my Uncle Bill Prosser’s match cover collection. My source of supply was discarded match covers found in street gutters. The price was right – free. For a brief period, I was fascinated by soda fountain and restaurant sugar packets that featured colorful images of birds and flowers. During a road trip to visit my father’s sister and her family in Cincinnati, I emptied the soda cap holder at every soda cooler I encountered. None of these accumulations survived.
Shortly after my family moved from Bethlehem to Hellertown in the fall of 1948, I started to save things I accumulated. During subsequent visits to Seaside Heights, I spent my time in boardwalk penny arcades rather than on the beach. Within a short time, I acquired a group of arcade cards featuring baseball players and other sports figures, movie stars (especially B movie cowboy heroes), and, for their time, diaphanously clad women. I still have them. They were the beginning of my “saver” stage. The desire to save differs from the act of collecting. Saving occurs without a definite goal in mind. Saving is fueled by a feeling that it might be fun to revisit these objects at some future point, if only for the memories they evoke. They are random curiosities stored in a cabinet, on a shelf, or in a box.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, individuals had hobbies, an activity done regularly in one's leisure time for pleasure. Collecting was just one of many hobbies. Gardening, camping, working on cars, and cooking were other examples. The focus was on fun. Affordability was paramount. There was little to no competition, especially among youngsters. Serious collecting was an adult endeavor and limited to a small, elite group of individuals. In the case of antiques collecting (collectibles collecting was 25 years in the future), the number of collecting sub-categories numbered fewer than 250.
View Master slides are my earliest collecting memory. I received a Model C viewer for Christmas in 1949 or 1950. A View Master slide projector followed a year later. View Maser slides expanded my world horizon. I had no interest in the cartoon, fairy tale, religious, and television show slides. I focused on slides of places. Shortly after receiving my projector, I made a conscious decision to collect all the scenic slides available. Whenever my parents included me on a shopping trip to Bethlehem, I immediately headed to the store that sold View Master slides. Besides buying the new slides, I encouraged the owner to find discounted slides and sell them to me. I still have the viewer and projector, each in its period packaging. The demise of my collection is a memory I have tried to bury but will take to my grave.
When asked about my first collection, I do not share the View Master story. Instead, I focus on the Big Three collecting categories for youngsters at the time – coins, stamps, and rocks. These were the first three merit badges I earned as a Boy Scout. My father turned over his coin collection and stamp album in hopes I would add to them. I did for a brief period. By the time I was a junior in high school, the coin and stamp collections were in boxes and housed in my bedroom closet.
Although I never seriously collected rock and mineral specimens, my interest led to my working at Lost River Caverns in Hellertown. At the time, the Gilman family was a leading importer of jewelry specimens and lapidary supplies. I had no need to collect rocks and minerals. I was able to handle and study them as part of my job.
Still more a saver than collector, I did not become a “serious” collector until the mid-1960s during my career in the museum profession. I began by collecting things relating to the American canal system, a byproduct of being a founder and first president of the Pennsylvania Canal Society in 1966. By the early 1970s, I was into collecting Pennsylvania German material and “family” things.
The 1970s was a wonderful time to be a young collector. It was a time when country auctions and small local auction houses were king and regional antiques shows were eagerly anticipated and well attended. Many collecting categories were affordable. Collectors and some dealers encouraged new collectors. The level of comradery was high.
High-end pieces were beyond the financial means of many young collectors, myself included. Collectors developed a core collection and then swapped, traded, and bought as opportunities presented themselves. There also was an unbridled faith that the value of antiques, which had risen steadily throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th century, would always continue to increase. When I bought my fist piece of cobalt blue canal-theme American Historical View Staffordshire, I was assured by the dealer that I should think of it as part of my long-term retirement package.
I was a competitive collector, always trying to add upper echelon and masterpiece (ultimate) units to my collection. However, my financial resources were limited. As a result, I passed on many pieces.
Collectors never forget the pieces they did not buy. “Woulda, coulda, shoulda” as my friend Norman Martinus used to say. I should be grateful for all the pieces I did acquire over the years. I am. Truly, I am. That aside, the pieces I missed during my collecting career still haunt me.
Today, they haunt me in a different way. Thanks to the 2008-2009 Great Recession, and the changing collecting tastes of the Millennials and Generation Z, many of these pieces are available in the 2018 market place at 1970s prices or less. Further, while I did not have the money to buy them earlier, I do now.
My dilemma, similar to that of other collectors in my age bracket, is why buy them now. First, my time with them is limited. I already have passed the average life expectancy of males born in the 1940s. Second, the chances of the pieces holding or increasing in value while in my possession is questionable. I constantly remind myself of the old adage—no sense throwing good money after bad. Antiques and collectibles collecting categories do not recycle. Disappearance is the long-term prospect for too many of them. Third, I have reached the maximum square footage of my living space. I will not be buying a bigger house or adding an addition. More likely, I will be downsizing – not this year or the next but sooner than I care to admit. I have reached the point where if something new comes in something old needs to go out.
I am conflicted. It pains me to see objects I once considered treasures sell for prices far below what they should be worth. The “save it, save it” inner voice in my brain grows louder each time I encounter such an object. Although common sense dictates I should listen to a second voice screaming “to what end?” I recently have acquired objects based on the premise that if I do not buy and save them no one else will. I leave it to my readers to decide which of the two voices is the devil talking.
Collectors care about objects. It is hard to walk away and take an “it is not my problem” approach. In 2018, the ability to do this is critical if older collectors wish to maintain their sanity and/or their retirement funds. Is there a breaking point when an “I no longer care” attitude prevails? I hope I never have to find out.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.