Category Archives: Antiques and Collectibles

The Immigrant Experience and the Boston Bombings

The terrible events in Boston over the past week have made me think a lot about the immigrant experience here in the U.S. and the kinds of things that we keep to connect us to the old country. Despite all the hype about the American dream, the Tsarnaev brothers’ personal experience here was so bad that it caused them to lash out in a way that has been a stunning shock to our nation.

I have a small but precious collection of items brought over to America by my Swedish ancestors on my mother’s side. My great-grandfather Olaf, who immigrated at age 12, left a worn little diary written in Swedish with a series of sketches, a painting, and a few photographs. On the other side of the family, I have photographs and letters kept by my grandfather Andrew, who immigrated from Sweden in 1896 and got a job on the California Southern Pacific Railroad. It wasn’t highly paid work, but he was getting by and had hopes for the future.

These letters to Andrew are of interest to me right now because they reflect a common theme of the immigration experience: His family left behind in Sweden wrote to say, “Now that you live in America and are rich, could you give us a car?”

I think the Tsarnaev brothers’ expectations might have been similar to this. They were brought to the US with hopes for a better life, were sent to excellent schools, won scholarships. But the family struggled financially, and apparently did not achieve the rapid success that they were expecting. Living on public assistance, the brothers still drove an old Mercedes (apparently it never occurred to them to sell this gas guzzler to help get the younger brother through school).

I’m not saying that the family wasn’t willing to work hard; apparently they did. But times are hard for most of us right now, and I wonder if these two young men in particular were burdened with expectations that they found impossible to meet. Filled with resentment at the ongoing struggle to survive, feeling that they had been cheated out of what America was supposed to give them, the older brother Tamerlan in particular may have been a vulnerable target for a radical recruiter.

To Asian immigrants in the late 1800s, America was known as the “Golden Mountain.” For those who are lucky and willing to work hard, it can be. But it’s not always – my grandfather held a job and managed to buy a house with his wife working as well. But he never was able to buy his relatives back home a car.


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Collecting the Dream of Flying in Space

America’s space flight initiatives are in an odd place right now – trying to privatize our programs, but not offering very good reasons for companies to do so (i.e., financial reasons). A fair number of people feel that with the end of the shuttle program, the U.S. is giving up on the dream.

But oh, we want that dream so badly! For all those who grew up on Robert Heinlein novels and 2001: A Space Odyssey, who would have committed murder for a chance to go to space camp or to experience weightlessness, the days of NASA’s glory in the 1960s and ‘70s were a time when literally anything was possible. There is nothing like living in a nation that is in the process of dreaming big and bold.

And we did it! We held our collective breath and jumped into the starry abyss. Some died, others suffered. We spent millions of dollars that maybe we didn’t quite have. But we had a dream, and we had heroes, and we finally had success. We went to the moon.

Ever since, collectors have assembled some impressive collections of space stuff. From autographs, badges, and vintage programs to equipment, flown items, and even spacesuits, collectors maintain the hope of space flight and of mankind expanding out into the universe. As we’ve built the space station, gone to Mars, sent out flying labs – we keep hanging on to the dream.

A couple of days ago, President Obama announced a new NASA mission to find, capture, retrieve, and explore an asteroid. The goal is to deliver a crew to an asteroid parked near the moon by 2021, as a move toward sending humans to Mars while also learning about how to protect Earth from asteroids. Some hope for the future, certainly.

See one awesome piece of space nostalgia at my shop CollectibleCool.

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Charlie Chaplin the Great – Or Not, Depending

Right upfront, I have to confess to being a silent film fanatic. I adore early films. I’m not referring to what many people of my generation got all too used to seeing – action too fast, bad acting, terrible print quality.  I’m referring to the films that today we recognize as masterpieces of the time. Today we understand that they run at a different frame rate. We’ve got good clean prints. And we know that many outstanding actors were beginning to explore and exploit acting techniques to work for the camera, rather than the stage. Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton (my all-time favorite), Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks…. The list goes on.

And then of course, there’s Chaplin.

Charlie was hugely popular in his early career, making a fortune from his Little Tramp movies, such as Gold Rush, The Circus, and City Lights. However, in the 1940s his career went downhill after a paternity suit, a couple of movies that were considered “progressive and amoral,” and government accusations of being a Communist. Finally, the Truman administration waited until he had gone abroad for a vacation, and then filed charges (sound familiar, Roman Polanski?). Charlie was never able to reenter the U.S.

Did he deserve all this? Frankly, no. But Charlie was never exactly Mr. Tact – he had offended a lot of people and it came back to bite him. But he was also brilliant in front of the camera and is still the single most recognizable actor and director of the silent era.

Chester Conklin, in the Kevin Brownlow book, The Parade’s Gone By, described the initial creation of the Little Tramp: “I remember one rainy morning, Roscoe Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, and myself were sitting in the dressing room playing pinochle. Charlie wanted in and went up to the make-up bench… he held up various pieces of crepe hair under his nose…. Finally, he found a piece that he liked, stuck it on with spirit gum, went over and got Roscoe Arbuckle’s hat and his pants, my [cutaway] coat…. He took his own cane and went out … into the lobby and started clowning around doing the drunk act he’d done on vaudeville. He’d get his foot stuck in the cuspidor and couldn’t get it out – all that kind of thing.

“Everyone had gathered around and was laughing. [Keystone Director Mack] Sennett stood back of the crowd and watched. Finally he went up to Charlie and said ‘Listen, do what you’ve been doing when we shoot this picture with Mabel and Chester.’ Of course, it wound up that he stole the picture from us.”

Chaplin I found myself thinking of all this as I looked at a lithograph I just put up for sale on my shop, CollectibleCool. It’s a single page by caricaturist Henry Major, and appeared in a limited edition book of 800 called Hollywood in 1938.

Out of all the images in this book, Major chose to show Charlie in three different aspects: As the Little Tramp twice, and as a wild-haired character who looks more like the role he played in Limelight much later. Was Major trying to convey some of Charlie’s complexity with these sketches? It’s as though he was having a hard time deciding who Charlie was.

See what you think.

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“Let Nothing Perish” – A Visit with Charles Paget Wade

“Let nothing perish” – an appropriate motto for today, when money is tight, reality shows focus on auctions and flea markets, and recycling is becoming a public virtue.

But the phrase, “Let nothing perish,” was actually coined by Charles Paget Wade, born during the Victorian Age in 1883. British architect, painter, poet, and collector: From the age of seven till he died in 1951, Wade assembled a massive set of more than 22,000 wildly different items. From art to old maps, armor to medicine bottles, books to watches and fine clocks, bicycles to instruments, toys to model ships, ceramics to documents, even a cherished set of screws – all from the 1600s to the mid-20th century.

Visiting this kind of special collection is an amazing experience. I was fortunate to have a chance to see many of these pieces at his home of Snowshill Manor, in Gloucestershire in the UK. The house itself is pretty cool: It is ancient, built in the 800s; it is set in an Arts and Crafts garden designed by M. H. Baillie Scott. Wade appeared to know his priorities: He and his wife lived in a small cottage in the grounds, while the collections were housed in the manor! (I’m not so sure his wife cared for this – after marrying in 1946, the newlyweds spent much more time in the West Indies.)

But walking through the Manor’s carefully arranged rooms is a joy and a pleasure. Wade wrote, “I have not bought things because they were rare or valuable. My guiding essentials have been good design, colour, and workmanship. What a joy these old things are to live with, each piece made by the hand of a craftsman, each has feeling that no machine could ever attain.

“Though each room of the house is filled with items of interest, each has a restful atmosphere. They are rooms to linger in – rooms one must return to – rooms where there is always something to discover – rooms which inspire a thousand fancies.” A true follower of William Morris!

What famous collections have you seen that really struck a chord? Share your story! And be sure to check me out on Etsy at CollectibleCool.

(Image: Property of the UK National Trust, self-portrait of Charles Paget Wade.)

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Famous People – Not So Famous Collections

Celebrities are no more immune to the collecting bug than anyone else, and of course many of them are wealthy enough to really indulge themselves. I’m not so sure how I feel about this – I’m one of those who enjoys the thrill of the hunt. It seems as though having enough money to literally buy anything you want might take some of the edge off. However, many of these celebrities would apparently not agree!

Take Quentin Tarantino, for example, most recently the Oscar-winning writer of Django Unchained. The man behind the classic but violent Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs amuses himself far more sedately when not on the set – he collects old board games. His favorites are apparently those merchandised from old TV shows, such as The Dukes of Hazzard.

Now actor Tom Hanks has an interesting taste – he collects old typewriters. He says he loves the permanency of the typed word. He buys the old machines from all over the world; must cost the earth in shipping, too.

And people still collect stamps. My father was an avid stamp collector – his collection was large, though not particularly valuable. But it’s now a hobby more women are indulging in, such as tennis player Maria Sharapova. Her goal is to collect stamps from every place she goes. She is joined in her habit by British pop singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor. However, Ms. Sharapova has admitted that perhaps she should not have publicly confessed to this type of collecting – she was quoted as saying “everyone started calling me a dork.” Not to worry, Maria. We get it.

Then there’s MTV host Alexa Chung, who claims to collect dead things, i.e., taxidermied animals. Despite being a vegetarian, she apparently has no qualms about killing animals for non-food-related reasons.

Demi Moore and her dolls, Ozzy Osbourne and his Beatles memorabilia, Nicolas Cage and Jonathan Ross with their comic books, Teddy bear collectors Dame Judi Dench and Elton John – the list goes on. Sir Michael Caine with his houseful of art nouveau seems effete by comparison.

I once met a woman who collected farrier’s tools for shoeing horses. It sounds a little unusual until you learn that she had longed to be a blacksmith when she was a child.

There’s always a reason.

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The 20th Century By Way of Sheet Music

A couple of weeks ago, I came across about 100 pieces of vintage sheet music. They had belonged to an elderly lady who was an enthusiastic amateur pianist. I knew her fairly well, and I remember she was one of those older people whose friends were all decades younger than she was. She would host regular music sessions at her house, with groups of students showing up to perform.

As I sorted this clearly beloved music collection, I found myself swept up on a journey through the 20th century. It included songs published way back in the early 1900s – I came across “One Fine Day,” from the opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini, published as a popular song in 1908. There really was a time when an opera aria was considered popular music!

From the 1920s, I found a song called “Lover, Come Back to Me” written by Oscar Hammerstein (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame), with music by David Romberg. It has one of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen, summing up all the charm and flamboyance of the flapper era just one year before the U.S. sank into the Great Depression.

My parents grew up during the Depression, and I remember my father telling stories about going to the grocery stores each night to check through the trash for discarded food. People survived the 1930s by singing show tunes like “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter, “Good Night Sweetheart,” sung by Rudy Vallee, and “Dancing in the Dark,” from the Broadway hit The Band Wagon.

Looking through the pieces from the 1930s, I was also amazed to find what appears to be the autograph of actress Jane Ferrar on the cover of  “Yesterdays” from the 1935 film Roberta.  Ms. Ferrar is not on the cast list for this film, but it does feature a number of uncredited early appearances by stars to be (including Lucille Ball). It seems possible that Ferrar might have been one of the song-and-dance girls alongside the incomparable Lucy. Did the original owner actually meet Ms. Farrar during her brief period of popularity (or before it)? This is the kind of thing that makes what I do so interesting.

As the U.S. recovered from the Depression, of course, came the war. Sheet music was now printed with ads for war bonds. “As Time Goes By” from the film classic Casablanca highlighted the days before World War II hit its full stride. Covers regularly featured film stars in wartime stories – songs like “My Heart Sings” from Anchors Aweigh and “That Old Black Magic” from Star-Spangled Rhythm.

For some reason the collection includes just a few songs from the 1950s. And then – BOOM – the 1960s: Folk music! McQueen! Dunaway! Streisand! What a difference a decade makes! There are relatively few pieces from the ‘70s and ‘80s – I think my old friend’s tastes were well established by then. (But why did she have a song by Madonna? Inquiring minds want to know.)

Going through this music again gave me clarity into why we collect. This wonderful set of old standards connects – not just the original owner, but us – to our nation’s and our personal stories. Like a musical snapshot, we capture the past and gain insight into how it underlies our journey to modern times.

It also made me want to go watch old movies!

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Filed under Antiques and Collectibles, Art, Historical Memorabilia, Music, Porcelain, Uncategorized, Vintage Sheet Music

Why the Heck Do We Collect?

Welcome to my CollectibleCool blog – for all of us who love collecting. No, we’re not hoarders, though these days there seems to be a certain disapproval from some who frown on keeping anything (blame interior design and hoarder reality shows). We just take great pleasure in the finding and owning of awesome stuff.

But why do we enjoy it so much?

The fact is that people always have. Most of us aren’t collecting in the hope of someday making a lot of money off the collection. My experience is that the majority have a strong emotional connection to whatever it is they collect. Our collections remind us of our childhood, or connect us to a period of history that we are interested in. Some do it because they love the “thrill of the hunt.” Some have struggled through bad times, such as the Depression era, and now the collection helps remind them that they no longer have to struggle. And some do it because the stuff is just so darn cute we can’t resist having more than one!

My mother was a quiet but extremely determined collector. She loved china thimbles, Swedish annual plates, small pitchers, British porcelain items, Beatrix Potter figurines, stone carvings, penguins, European ephemera… Neatly organized throughout the house, her collections fascinated people – you never got bored visiting Mom. She was attached to them because they reminded her of places she had been, and her love for Victorian England in particular. I grew up watching my mother prowling the yard sales, garage sales, and auctions – making herself into an expert and a picker for antiques shops throughout our region.

Today I am following in her footsteps, spending a lot of time locating unique and unusual items and selling some of them (but certainly not all!) on Please pay me a visit at CollectibleCool today!

Why do you collect? What are your favorite memories about collecting – did you have someone who inspired you, as my mother did me? Or did you get into it in a different way? Share your story!

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