Why Antiques?

Lea Wait, posting. Yesterday I attended a symposium on Maine antiques run by the Maine Antique Dealers Association, of which I’m a former board member, and The Kennebunkport Historical Society. (No, I’m not a member of the KPHDS, but I am a member of the Lincoln County Historical Association.) The symposium was open to the public, but most people who attended were in some way connected to the antiques business.

A major theme of the symposium (in addition to providing fascinating information on several subjects about which I was only minimally knowledgeable) was “how to we get young people to be interested in and value antiques?” It was a concern of antiques dealers, auctioneers, and museum directors .. .all of whom were represented at the meeting.

And it got me thinking about what fascinates me about antiques, and when that interest started.

I’m a third generation antiques dealer. My great-grandfather, who I knew only when he was in his high 90s, imported Irish and Scots linens, crystal, and furniture for his shop on Beacon Hill in Boston from about 1890-1910. His oldest daughter, my grandmother, was a doll and toy dealer. Some of my earliest memories are going with her to antique shops and shows and auctions. One of her dealer friends, Mrs. Jacques in Marblehead, Massachusetts, gave me the first book in my collection when I was about six: a first edition of Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. She made sure I knew it was a treasure. I still have it. I made my first auction purchase when I was about 12:  a first edition (1828-1832) of the Encyclopedia Americana. And I remember my grandmother advising me to spend my allowance on paper dolls of screen and television characters, and not to cut them out. To save them. They’d be valuable in the future. She was right.

Terms like “Hitchcock,” “Waterford,” “Parian”, “Limoges,” “French Fashion Dolls,” Schoenhut circuses and pianos, black-headed china dolls, McLaughlin, peddler dolls, were all part of my vocabulary by the time I was in second or third grade. My grandmother would point at a tea caddy or a silver box or a painting in her home, and tell me its history. Who it had belonged to in the past, and why it was treasured. I treasured those things too.

I knew that if you tired of an antique you could resell it and buy something even more special, when if you spent your money at a candy store it was gone forever. I knew antiques were often made more carefully than their modern equivalents. That they were often beautiful. That they were links to people and places in the past.

I began to collect a few things. That was common in my family. My mother sought antique furniture and children’s books; my father was a numismatist, collecting and dealing in early paper money, and became a national expert in fractional currency. While I was in high school and college politics fascinated me, so I collected political memorabilia … campaign buttons, tokens, tickets to political conventions, and related items. Postcards were inexpensive, so I collected some of those, too, learning that “Detroits” were more valuable that other American publishers. That photographs on cards were fascinating. I especially valued postcards promoting women’s right to vote, and postcards of our home in Maine.

Researching and collecting was part of who I was. It was built into budgets and vacation plans from the time I was a young teenager. And I knew antiques were not only a hobby, but an investment.

I always thought that one day I, too, would become an antique dealer, and when I was in my twenties it seemed a logical step. I couldn’t afford to leave my corporate job, but I started small. My mother, who had recently retired, volunteered to run my business, so I provided the first funding, did the accounting, and we shared the buying, In those first years my mother did most of the selling. At first we were generalists, featuring kitchen wares and country “smalls,” as they’re known in the business. But soon my mother, an artist, became fascinated by antique prints, and I, too, got involved. We became antique print dealers. We talked of opening a shop, but at that time my mother lived in Maine and I lived in New Jersey, and neither of us wanted to be tied to shop hours. We did shows in the northeast, and saw customers by appointment.

As my mother got older and found shows more difficult to do, I gradually got more involved, until we always did shows together or occasionally I did a show by myself. My daughters helped me carry inventory and set up. Some were more interested in the business than others, but they all had their favorite prints, and even my first granddaughter became familiar with antique shows.

My mother did her last antique show with me only three months before she died, at the age of 89. After she died, I continued the business with my husband as my partner.

Now I still have a large inventory of prints, but the antiques business was hit hard by the 2008 crash. For the first time in the 35 years I’d been in business I found myself losing money at antique shows. And at the same time I was spending more time writing. So after a couple of years my husband and I decided to just do one or two shows a year, and see customers by appointment or by mail. Which is what we do now.

Sitting with a roomful of lovers of antiques yesterday, I felt again the friendship and camaraderie of those who also valued the glimpse of the past that antiques give us all. The deeper understanding of how our ancestors lived, which now helps me write my historical novels. The joy of discovering a piece that is unique. Special. That’s history touches one’s heart.

Not as many young people today see the value and the heritage of antiques. It’s sad. It’s a problem for the antiques business, but I think it’s also a problem for our shared view of our place in history. Newer is not always better. Crafts and passions of the past can enrich our lives today.

Many young people — and I’m referring to people up through their thirties and perhaps older – seem intimidated by the antiques I found so fascinating and accessible when I was young. They don’t attend antiques shows and auctions. They don’t care about the past, or its accoutrements.

To me, that’s sad. Because antiques are traces …. “shadows,” as I write in my mystery series about an antique print dealer, of the past. Windows into where we came from, worldwide.

And if the past, and the lessons it has to share with us, are ignored, we as a society will lose a special perspective on how we got to where we are now.

And that is very sad.

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5 Responses to Why Antiques?

  1. This is a fascinating post, Lea — one of the best I think I’ve read on this blog. I know it is not about writing, per se — but it is about what informs your writing. Thank you so much for taking the time to pen such a thorough explanation of your passion.

  2. John Clark says:

    Love this post. Two of my prized possessions are a McGovern/Eagleton campaign button and one featuring William Jennings Bryan. I love working my way through antique and treasure/trash shops here in central Maine. There’s no better way to spend a rainy afternoon.

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Like you, Lea, I was taken “antiquing” as a child. Still have the china dolls I collected then, though the beautiful furniture is in need of restoring. It’s not on display in our somewhat modern house, but I hope someday we have the room again.

    When we emptied my mother’s house this summer, including some pre-Civil War era furniture and paintings, I was surprised by which grandchildren wanted what. Some wanted old things both for beauty and sentiment and others had no interest–and it wasn’t the ones I would have guessed!

    Finally, my father’s mother’s family were well-known interior decorators in New York and importers in the same era as your grandfather. So funny!

  4. Lea Wait says:

    Great comments! And, Barb, I’m a great believer (and practice what I preach!) in having a home that’s eclectic — comfortable contemporary furniture; old prints, sometimes in modern frames; folk art; “good” china and silver. Of course, I now live in a house built in 1774, so I have an old fireplace that my mother and grandmother equipped with period kitchenware, which is great fun …. but the broadside I have on the wall announcing the end of the war of 1812, and the $3 bill printed in Philadelphia in 1776 … definitely add to the ambience. I also love hand crafted 19th century dolls and toys … and some of them have found homes with me. We live in a melting pot culture … I believe in melting pot décor! (And then there’s the Ganesh sculpture in my living room … !) Repurposing is also fun. I have two brass boot black stands that are now lamps … and this could be a long post!

  5. MCWriTers says:

    Lea, I’ve always loved antiques for the way they provide a “link” with the past. I like to imagine who last wore my jewelry or put flowers in my vases or lit candles in my candleholders.

    I prefer antique furniture, too, because it brings a sense of history into my house. Also, very often, it’s well made, as opposed to a lot of the stuff that’s around today.

    Lovely post.


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