Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2018

Placing Objects in their Historical Context

The antiques and collectibles cozy mysteries well is drying up. There were insufficient new titles to write a strong “2018 Summer Read” column. A few new titles are slated for fall. Keeping my fingers crossed, I scheduled a “Winter Read” column for early 2019.

During a recent trip to Seattle, I lamented the lack of antiques and collectibles themed novels during a conversation with a staff member at Facèré Jewelry Art. “Have you read ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt?” she asked. When I answered in the negative, she strongly encouraged me to do so. Needing an airplane read (which, as it turns out, the book definitely is not) for my return flight to Grand Rapids, I bought a copy at Barnes and Noble.

Tartt is a descriptive writer – writes 100 words or more when a simple phrase could serve the same purpose. As a minimalist writer, I am having a hard time ploughing through the 962 small print pages of the paperback version. Three weeks after buying the book, I still am not half way. The book won Tartt a Pulitzer Prize. Did the judges and literary critics actually read it?

The book chronicles the story of Theo from adolescence and the loss of his parents to adulthood. Theo’s many life experiences included a somewhat shady career as a restorer and participant in the art underworld.

Tartt deserves credit for her honest and accurate reveals of the mindset of individuals involved with antiques and collectibles – buyers, collectors, dealers, museum professionals, restorers, and more. The idea for this column was triggered by an aside in Theo’s voice when describing a series of stories told by Hobie, a restorer of antique furniture whose clients included the major New York auction houses and private collectors. Hobie spent “gray December afternoons reading Tacitus or Mortley’s ‘Rise of the Dutch Republic,’ (‘I love history, ‘always.’ The road not taken! My grandest boyhood attribution was to be a professor of history at Notre Dame. Although what I do now is just a different way of working with history. I suppose.’)” [Pages 208-209, Little, Brown and Company paperback edition]

Although my career path was slightly different, I could have written this passage. My formal academic training was focused on becoming a history professor, albeit not at Notre Dame. When I decided to pursue a career in the museum profession and later as an independent specializing in the sale of antiques and collectibles information, I never fully gave up my academic dream. My academic teaching career ended in April 2018. For more than 50 years, I taught courses in history, art history, communications, or writing at one academic institution or another.

I always have treated objects as historical documents. In the past, I focused on the stories they have to tell –who designed it, who made it, how was it made, how does it differ from similar objects made at the same time, how was it merchandised, how was it used, who owned it over time, why was it saved, and what does it say about the person who owns it now. The answers to these questions make objects come alive.

Theo’s aside called attention to another side of an object’s story, one of which I am aware but have not explored in detail. Although objects do not exist in isolation, the standard approach taken by collectors and dealers is they do. To fully understand an object, it is necessary to place it in a historical context. Economic, geographic, military, political, religious, social, and other events occurred simultaneously with the manufacture of objects. Understanding the role these outside factors contributed to objects increased the understanding of the objects.

It is impossible to understand the evolution of the Teddy Bear without connecting it to President Roosevelt’s 1902 hunting trip to Mississippi. Although Roosevelt refused to shoot an old bear, the story quickly changed to Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear cub. The following dialogue from the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” (1952) summarizes what happened.

Ransom Stoddard (lawyer and US Senator played by James Stewart): “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”

Maxwell Scott (newspaper editor played by Carleton Young): “No, sir. This the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

As a historian, I often encountered timeline charts. These allow historians to gain a sense of perspective in terms of what is happening in different locations at the same time. When I was focusing on European history from 1515 to 1815, I had a chart that had country names across the top and dates along the side. If I wanted to know what was happening in American, England, or Continental Europe at any given date, for example 1776, I consulted the time line chart. Other charts tracked economic, social, religious, and other trends.

Timeline charts are few and far between in the antiques and collectibles trade. The only one with which I am familiar is Christie Romero’s jewelry timeline that appears in “Warman’s Jewelry, 4th Edition” (KP [Krause Publications], 2002). The timeline only had two columns. The first was headed “General History, Discoveries, and Inventions.” The second “Jewelry & Gemstone History, Discoveries & Inventions.” In 1876 in the first column, the following listings occur: “Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia; Wearing of swords banned in Japan; Queen Victoria become Empress of India; Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone.” Christie forgot Custer’s Last Stand. The second column had a single 1876 reference: “Alessandro Castellani presents a lecture on Etruscan Revival jewelry at the Centennial Exhibition.” Christie understood that jewelry trends and developments did not occur in isolation. Outside events could and did impact them.

When I lived with my parents, the day after Thanksgiving was devoted to setting up the train platform and decorating the Christmas tree. The morning began with numerous trips up and down the basement stairs to retrieve the boxes filled with train platform and Christmas decorations. Several storage boxes were filled with boxes of Shiny Brite ornaments, three to four times what was need for one tree. The various colors allowed choice—one year all red ornaments, another year a mixture of colors.

[Author’s Aside: Linda claims I am excessive, compulsive. She is correct. I learned the trait from my father. Every Christmas ornament had a specific location and box. When the ornaments were taken down, each was placed back in the exact location in the same box from which they came. They remain so in the Shiny Brite boxes I inherited.]

I never gave much thought as to why we had so many boxes of Shiny Brite ornaments. The answer involves placing Shiny Brite ornaments in their historical context. Germany and Japan were the principal suppliers of Christmas ornaments through the late 1930s. When World War II interrupted the source of supply, American manufacturers had to step forward. American Max Eckardt, an importer of German Christmas ornaments, established Shiny Brite in 1937. Working with Corning Glass, they developed a process to mass-produce inexpensive glass balls that could then be decorated as ornaments in factories owned by Eckardt. How was it done? Corning reconfigured the machines used to make light bulbs. During World War II, the metal tab at the top of the bulb was replaced with a cardboard tab, thus allowing the identification of war time ornaments. Shiny Brite dominated the Christmas ornament market through the 1940s and 1950s. Eckhardt died in the late 1960s. The popularization of plastic ornaments sealed the company’s fate.

“Now you know the rest of the story” with my humble thanks to Paul Harvey who made this a household phrase between 1976 and 2009. Historical context and backstory are not the same.

Historical context incorporates outside events into an object’s storyline. Backstory is more focused on the object.

Stories, dreams, and wonder are as critical to enticing individuals to collect as the objects themselves. The more one knows about an object, the more appeal it has. Historical context is one of the stories. Embrace rather than ignore it.

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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