“Our Flag”

We went to a local auction a few Sundays ago. It was a raucous affair. The cavernous warehouse building was stuffed to the brim with people and noise and frenetic energy and stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Three auctioneers worked different parts of the floor simultaneously. The box lots were auctioned in the back of the hall, the glassware, jewelry, and miscellaneous collectibles in the middle, and the front was reserved for the better quality items, enumerated with a special catalog. It was fantastic mayhem: at one point, they began auctioning off the very pieces of furniture we were sitting on.

As is often the case at auctions, people were there for the long haul — claiming prime chair locations and hunkering down with empty cardboard boxes and coolers full of food. We were ready for the event but not really ready for the day. Although we had arrived soon after the preview began at 9:00 a.m., I’d only brought a peanut butter sandwich and a full go-cup of coffee. It wasn’t going to be enough, as I would soon realize.

We quickly split up. I gravitated, as I always seem to do, to the old books, and actually found a lot of 19th-century imprints that I ended up buying for the Library Company. David found some things as well, and we settled in for the morning. As the auction progressed, I paced back and forth between the “high end” area, and the middle area where my books were. By noon, David needed a break and went back home for a bit. With some 50 lots of random vintage postcards ahead, he felt like this would be a good time to make a break for it. I stayed behind to place a few nominal bids in his absence and was grateful when he returned with a power bar to get me through.

Lulled into something approaching a hypnotic state (the patter of the auctioneers can do that to you), I was only half attuned to the images of various postcards as they flashed across a projection screen: a lot of patriotic postcards; a lot of Santa Claus postcards; a lot of World War I-themed postcards; a lot of postcards featuring scenic views of Western Pennsylvania; a lot of Atlantic City postcards; and so on. Ho hum. I didn’t even bother looking through these stacks during the preview. Eventually there came a lot of turn-of-the-century comic postcards. I’ve seen kajillions of these over the years — the corny, the cartoony, the no-so-subtly bawdy — that my brain yawned. And then, something on the screen caught my eye, and probably appeared for no longer than a second. The auctioneer noticed my hand shoot up, announcing “New bidder!” And my hand stayed up, and up, until I won the lot at forty bucks.

This is what so excited me, bidder #220:

I came across a version of this postcard when I was working on my book on pawnbroking and very much wanted it for the chapter on anti-Semitism. But apparently it is quite rare and, given the theme, quite desirable. So I’ve never been able to afford it. Until now.

Produced by F.W. Dunbar in 1906, it shows “Our Flag,” a flag emblazoned with motifs referencing many of the familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes. The pawnbroker’s three balls anchor the corners, and a line of used clothes hang from the top border, which is also studded with diamonds cut like the Star of David. A stereotypical Jewish face — big nose, crazy hair, steely eyes, and large ears — is in the center, riding atop a peddler’s cart. Large hands (symbolizing greediness) protrude from the face like wings. And flanking this figure are two scenes referring to Jews’ supposed use of arson as a business strategy, to collect insurance money. (I have heard this called “Jewish lightning” and have seen 19th-century caricatures refer to Jews as the “Smokesteins” and “Burnupskys.”) “Our Friend” is a burning building while “Our Enemy” is the fire department.

However ugly an image it is, it is nevertheless an important (and quite representative) depiction of anti-Semitism from a century ago. Many of the stereotypes that go along with images like “Our Flag” remain entrenched in our culture today.

Hobbies Magazine, December 1965

One of my favorite Christmas presents this year is an issue of Hobbies: The Magazine for Collectors, from December 1965.Leafing through the pages took me right back to my grandparents’ house. Built by my grandfather out of stone and wood, it was not only the place they called home, but also where my grandmother had her antique business, Stony Knoll Antiques in upstate, New York. Because the place was both living quarters and showroom, I became attached to the curious things in their house at my own peril: dolls, paintings, and even the things we sat on were not only domestic comforts but store stock. One day a thing was there and  the next it might be gone. You never knew. And that was an important lesson I learned the hard way, that everything was for sale, no mater how much I liked it or not. I would later come to understand this, more intellectually, as the conflict between the sentimental and commercial — the utter subjectivity of worth and value. What was a precious thing to me was income for my grandmother, the shrewd dealer. We would never be able to reconcile these two value systems, and for a long time I misunderstood this as callousness. For my grandmother, things were things, and they had resale value. When she died and we had to settle her estate, we were never quite sure whether something was a legitimate family heirloom or simply a leftover from her business.

Perhaps even more than the content of Hobbies bringing me back to that earlier time is its aesthetic. The paste-up production value of the magazine so typifies how publications were made and looked before the age of desktop publishing and tools such as Photoshop and scanners. Growing up, I saw so many of these black and white photographs in my grandparents’ trade magazines and reference books on antiques — rows of pewter mugs that were part of someone’s distinguished collection, wooden butter molds from various perspectives, close-ups of silver hallmarks — all flanked by dry text explaining histories, markings, uses, and values. I could not have been more disinterested.

But now bittersweet memories transport me back. Check out, for example, this article on button collecting below. I collected some of these, like the Heinz pickle pins and advertising pinbacks, as a kid, because I liked advertising items and could afford them.

I like the advertising tie-ins accompaying the article, too. On the facing page there are ads for button sellers and button “wants.” Guy and Gladys Saulsbury in Spicer, Minnesota, had hundreds of old buttons to choose from, and Mrs. Margaret Jacoby in New York City could get you imported European buttons, 18th-century buttons, pictorials, crests, and cufflinks, too. Walter Peterson of Dundee, Illinois, was looking for military uniform buttons and Edward J. Meyer, of Sunnyside, New York, wanted pre-1932 presidential campaign buttons.

Hobbies was quite liberal in what it considered a worthy collectible (though I suspect its target audience skewed highbrow). The Departments and Special Features included articles on old jewelry, clocks, toys, prints, glass, stamps, firearms, gems and minerals, and “dollology.”

Here’s a page from an article on collecting postcards:

And here’s a page from an article on miniatures. I’m especially drawn to the cluttered and over-exposed black and white photos of the miniature displays, and the earnest classified ads with their quaint borders. You could get tiny hinges, miniature circus items made to order, 1″ to 1′ scale ladderback chairs with woven seats, and all sorts of dollhouse items from “Just Miniatures” in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The one disappointment about Hobbies — this issue, at least — is that there’s no mention of Stony Knoll Antiques among the hundreds of dealers represented inside. Leafing through these pages, I expect to see my grandmother’s business at every turn. It is so present that I can’t believe it’s not there.

A Tale of Two Toy Shows

Two weekends ago I drove about an hour north to the Allentown Toy Show, a twice-yearly major toy show for collectors and dealers of old toys. Attendance wasn’t what it usually is. At least a third of the usual dealers were not there — people from New York and New Jersey no doubt trying to reassemble their lives after hurricane Sandy.

Besides that, something else was notable about the attendees. The people trolling the aisles and manning tables all fell into the same general demographic — middle and post-middle-age white men. Sure, there were some women: wives of dealer husbands tending tables while intently focused on needlework projects, and a few independent female dealers, specializing in German kitchen sets and dollhouse furniture. But the collectible toy business is still mainly a man’s game, and here at Allentown you could see the affinity between the boys and their toys. Mid-century Japanese battery-operated tin replicas of cars painted in confectionery colors with exaggerated fins; mechanical robots steering steam rollers; German toys from a few decades earlier — finely-detailed and fragile-looking wind-up replicas of Model Ts; American cast-iron banks, furniture, and motorcycles; pressed steel omnibuses big enough for and built to withstand a child’s behind; delicate papier mache Halloween and Christmas decorations, and so on. Wonderful and curious things you would not encounter anywhere else.

A week later and many more miles to the north was the Rochester Toy Show, a much different scene. There, the (still mostly) men were markedly younger, and scrutinizing boxed sets of plastic Star Wars, Star Trek, and other pop culture characters as if inspecting the most intricate French automaton of the early 20th century. They passionately debated color variations, label fonts, accessory parts, and other essential details that only the most dedicated — and educated — collectors could care about. Here was the popular culture of my generation and later — Johnny West and GI Joe dolls, Pac-Mac drinking glasses, Rolling Stones memorabilia, empty boxes that once held Count Chocula and Frankenberry cereal, New Kids on the Block action-fashion dolls.

Only, this was my brother’s and his friends’ popular culture. He had the GI Joes. I had a few Barbies. He had a BB gun, I had a play kitchen. Interestingly, “girls’ collectibles” were mostly absent here, perhaps ghettoized at the dedicated doll shows haunted by Barbie and Ken, Cabbage Patch Kids, and daughters of Madame Alexander. But the serious collectors and collectibles (with a few exceptions, of course) tend to still be boys and their toys, which was evident at both shows, despite the difference in buyers and sellers and stuff for sale.

Also striking was seeing the collectible marketplace in action, and the waxing and waning of collecting manias. In general, the era for train collecting is over, since they no longer resonate for us as important cultural symbols of industrial strength, power, ingenuity, and progress like they once did. Go to any major train show and you can clearly see a starkly aging population of old men bargaining for sets of vintage standard gauge Lionel trains, heritage essences to scent the steam of model railroad locomotives (really — there are hundreds of them), and everything in between. This world is on the wane, and quite sad.

Toys of the mid century continue to be highly collectible, and in many cases, like Japanese robots and battery-operated cars (mint and boxed) are seeing their highest prices ever. But surely this bubble will burst, too, as the denizens of Allentown get older and older. The future, for now, is at Rochester, with a younger generation who cares about the toys of its youth.

This all makes perfect sense to me. Except, why such a dearth of women collectors and the kinds of old toys we might be interested in? Is it, perhaps, because my toys, like most girls’ toys, were highly didactic and gendered in a way that made our worlds tightly circumscribed then, and of little collectible value now? While the boys I grew up with fantasized through their toys about being army soldiers, taming the wild west, becoming secret agents, or flying to the moon, we girls were given miniature shopping carts, dolls we could treat like children, and kitchen sets. Our worlds were small. Because many grown-up women are living the lives we played at as children, we don’t feel the need to fetishize, cherish, or revisit these fantasy worlds now.

What do I collect? Not the toys of my youth but those from a slightly earlier generation. Hyper-feminine, bright pink Japanese battery-operated appliances, which I love because they are so outrageous and wonderful. Refrigerators with working pistons and inner shelves that revolve like carousels. Stoves with light-up burners and miniature turkeys rotating on spits. Sinks that actually dispense water. Irons that light up and emit fake steam. Those are tiny fantasy worlds I can enjoy.

The End of Haggling

My most recent piece for the Bloomberg “Echoes” blog talks about the rise of “fixed price” stores in the 19th century that, to a large degree, ended haggling in the retail environment. There are some exceptions to this, though. I remember as a kid shopping with my dad and wherever we were, he would negotiate. He’d ask for a retailer’s best price on a floor model, or get the manager to throw in random other stuff for free. Amazingly, he was even able to do this at grocery stores, where he’d find a discounted item in the dented and damaged bin and persuade cashiers to ring up others like it (undented and undamaged) at the same price.

I attribute this to his growing up with parents in the antique business. His mother (my grandmother) was always “dickering.” It’s not that my family’s a bunch of cheap-o’s or are out to screw somebody else. It was what you did.

Of course, there are still plenty of places where haggling regularly occurs — flea markets, garage sales, antiques and collectibles shows, and even eBy, where they’ve added a “Make an Offer” button. But in retail settings, not so much.

The one major exception is at car dealerships. Given the amount of anxiety about buying cars and consumers’ general feeling that they’re being ripped off, why does this model still dominate? It was something my editor at Bloomberg asked and which I admitted I couldn’t answer. But it got me thinking. . . .

Haggling still occurs in situations where a lot of factors are at play and where a lot of uncertainty exists. In the case of eBay and flea markets, many different goods are offered in the same place at the same time, and many are available in limited supplies or as one item only. So, buyers are presented with a jumble of goods that are difficult to compare at that instant with other similar items or even with each other, and their future availability is likewise uncertain. (If you walk away to think about it and someone else buys it, it’s gone.) Regular retailers tend to stock many different types of the same item and several units of each particular item, enabling purchasers to compare prices and to think about what they might want to buy. In addition, many different buyers come to flea markets and the like with varying degrees of desire for certain goods and abilities to pay for them. So, not only is the stock highly varied, but the individual circumstances of potential buyers is as well.

Finally, in the case of buying a car, there are so many more variables, which also explains why haggling still exists here. For one thing, even the same model car is offered in many different “packages” — so many so that it’s uncommon to find any two of the same cars on a lot with the same sticker price. This makes it hard for me, the customer, to compare, say, the hatchback with the cold weather package to the one with the satellite radio and GPS system. Or the one with the sport wheels and leather interior and special outercoating. Apples to oranges. In addition, there’s the trade-in value of my old car, which itself is determined by many of the same variables above and more, such as mileage, if the model is still desirable in the resale market, and so on. Then there’s the financing — am I paying for it outright, or will the dealership be able to make even more of a profit by getting me to finance it through their own affiliated company?

Because of the opacity of the car business, I thought I’d take my dad, the artful haggler, with me when I purchased a new car a few years ago. He could certainly get me a good deal. After settling on a make and model at the dealership, we sat down, ready to make an offer. My dad scribbled a figure on a piece of paper, folded it in half, and slid it across the desk to the sales agent, who placed his hand on top of it and gently shook his head. “We don’t negotiate here. The sticker price is what you pay.” My dad tried again, this time with a different figure scrawled on another scrap of paper. “No, really. We don’t haggle.” “Well,” he ventured, one last time, “can you at least throw in some floor mats?” “Nope. Not even floor mats.”

So if more car dealers are adopting the fixed-price system — and they gradually are — perhaps it really is the end of haggling.

Valmor and Sweet Georgia Brown Dream Book

My recent blog post at Bloomberg News was illustrated with the cover image of the Valmor and Sweet Georgia Brown Dream Book, a give-away that came with the purchase of nostrums, cosmetics, and hair care products.

The booklet is an intriguing thing I found outside of Gainesville, Florida when I was visiting there this past spring. I didn’t have the space to explain the booklet in the Bloomberg piece, so I’ll tell you more about it here. Published in 1946 by the Chicago-based Valmor Products Co., the booklet is first and foremost a showcase for the line of Valmor Products. Like many give-aways, it was used to entice customers to buy a product by offering something free to go along with it. In addition, it was an advertisement for those same products, getting people to purchase even more, in a kind of infinite feedback loop. (This was a common technique with retail premiums — to offer something for free that was also a promotion for what you were already buying, so you’d buy more, etc., etc.)

Here’s the cover:The product line itself was quite extensive, and clearly directed at African Americans. Like all good advertising and marketing, it created, expressed, and then promised to allay prevailing anxieties. The Valmor line would not only help customers become more attractive to the opposite sex, but also would help civilize and assimilate them racially. The earlier line of personal care products developed by Madam C.J. Walker urged African Americans to proudly embrace their heritage and unique identity. The purpose of the Valmor line was just the opposite.

Some of these products, like perfumes and deodorants, were advertised in popular magazines as well, as part of the larger rise of the hygiene industry in the first half of the 20th century. Despite Americans’ access to good soap and running water, advertisers still insisted we were a dirty, smelly lot whose bodies had to be preened, managed, and sanitized.

What’s notable about the Valmor products specifically is that they suggested they could obliterate one’s race by making one’s skin lighter and hair straighter, going beyond improving personal hygiene to changing one’s appearance and identity. Many of the images show people who look white and suggest that African Americans should strive to be whiter — that this was the norm.

There are lightening face powders.

There are bleach creams and vanishing creams.There are hair straighteners.

There are pomades called “Black Out” and “Slick-Black.”And there are the products that, like magic elixirs, will improve your love life, including Magic Pink Lovin’ Cream, some funky incense, and Red Clover Compound.

These products were quite popular, and promoted globally. Valmor placed ads in the African newspapers the Gold Coast Independent in 1935 and the Bantu World in 1936. Thanks to Google, I was even able to find an ad from 1967 in the Virgin Island Daily News.

In addition to being an extended ad for Valmor products, the booklet is a “dream book,” a genre that dates back centuries. Connections to the spiritual world, dream books helped people decipher the symbolism of their dreams. As important, dream books connected dream symbolism to lucky numbers that people could use in gambling such as policy play (aka, the numbers game), which was extremely popular in poor and African American communities in particular.  According to the Valmor and Sweet Georgia Brown Dream Book:

CROWN: If placed upon your head, it signifies success and great honor. If it be of silver it means good health, but if of green leaves, friends will forsake you. 42, 52, 67

DOGS: Dreaming of dogs denotes faithful friends. Sleeping dogs mean you need have no fears, but barking dogs are a warning to watch out. White dogs denote marriage, black dogs denote distress. Mad dogs represent great success, fighting dogs mean persecution. 4, 9, 19, 49

LAMP: Not a good omen. If lighted, it indicates passion, jealousy, trouble. If not lighted, it indicates business loss through neglect. 18, 35.

MONKEY: An evil omen that portends mischief and secret enemies. 1, 2, 4, 44

YARN: To see it signifies sadness. 4, 44, 50, 55. To wind it indicates false friends. 5, 44, 55, 77

And so on through the end of the alphabet. By enlarging the pictures above you’ll be able to see many more examples. What did you dream about last night? Check the lucky numbers and buy yourself a Power Ball ticket!

Free Stuff

As it happens, two of my pieces on retail premiums (aka, incentives, inducements, free give-aways) were published yesterday. Although they both talk about the same subject, they’re radically different in tone, content, and intended audience.

An extremely condensed version can be found here, at “Echoes,” a blog dedicated to economic history at Bloomberg News. The title’s a bit strange, but I had no control over that. (My post on the history of pawnbroking appeared back in February.)

The much longer academic-y version of the origins of retail premiums in America can be found here on the website of the journal Enterprise and Society. Click here for the easier-to-read downloadable pdf. It is 42 pages long and has 97 footnotes. But the illustrations are cool.

They’re both free, by the way!


The Unimal

If you were to invent the perfect food animal today, it probably would yield something that was vitamin-rich, low in calories, containing lots of “good” cholesterol, and with some fish oil and antioxidants thrown in for good measure.

If you were Howard E. Babcock (1889-1950), you would have invented the Unimal. Babcock dedicated his life to promoting farming interests during the first half of the 20th century and spent his professional years in education, as both a marketing professor in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and working in various capacities for the Federal Farm Board, the Central Bank for Cooperatives, the National Cooperative Council, and the New York State Grange.

According to Cornell’s website, Babcock “believed that using animal products could contribute to a healthier diet as well as provide farmers with a stronger market for their products.” His ideal food animal was a multi-hybrid, a Unimal: equal parts pig, cow, steer, chicken, and sheep. A plaster version of Babcock’s vision was on display at Cornell during the annual Farm and Home Week, and it (they?) also traveled around the country, stopping in St. Louis and Washington, DC.

A year after Babcock’s death, Topic Toys immortalized the Unimal in plastic form, putting it/them directly into the hands of children who were supposed to appreciate the wonders of modern agriculture while playing with the toy. According to the box, “Whether you’re from the City, Country, or Suburb – you’ll have a Farmyard of Fun with this Fantastic Little Fellow!”Babcock copyrighted the design and the toy even carries his stamp.

The belly of the Unimal contains a pound of butter, a quart of milk, a hotdog, a ham, and an egg: a perfect food animal for the cholesterol-laden 1950s diet. When the front legs are pressed down, a bell rings and the Unimal dispenses with one of its products.

Of both meat and milk, it is not kosher. Nor is it equitable. The cow gives two products, butter and milk. From the steer presumably comes a beef hotdog. The pig supplies the ham. And the chicken contributes the egg. What of the sheep? This is not addressed in the literature.Does it moo? Baa? Cluck? Oink?

There’s a little bit more about the Unimal at Cornell’s website, including a clip from the movie Farmboy. I found my Unimal last week at a vintage toy show and brought it home because I thought it was really cool and interesting. I had no idea it was actually a serious “invention” that represented simpler times, food-wise. My 21st-century version would be called the “Fatimal,” equal parts corn, sugar, diet soft drink, quarter-pounder, and chips. Yum.


Edward Corner

When I’m out with my dog on our daily walks, he spends his time with his nose to the ground, taking in the world via inhalation. Being visual creatures, we humans tend to get a lot more sensory input from what we see. So while Cecil is thoughtfully sniffing some seemingly random leaf or bush or rock, I’m looking around.

I’m always surprised and happy to notice something that had escaped me before. But at the same time, there are certain familiar and comfortable guideposts that I like to check in on while walking. Is the bloated pug dog going to be out in his yard barking at us? What’s the new retro outfit in the consignment shop window? How’s the pear tree doing? Has anyone fixed that broken window yet?

Being an old city, Philadelphia is populated with urban artifacts, like brick buildings and cobblestoned alleys that mark change over time and are material records of the past. I also notice these things. The Edward Corner building, at the intersection of Delaware Avenue and Shackamaxon in Fishtown, is a favorite artifact. I’m always happy to see it still standing, even though I know it’s only a matter of time before Development decides it has a better plan for that location. You can read more about the history of the structure itself at this site, and see an intimate portrait of it here.

I find it evocative because it is a vestige of the once extremely important and vibrant waterfront life along the Delaware River, a waterway flanked by Philadelphia and Camden. Edward Corner first opened a store in the 1870s and moved to this location in the early 1920s, in close and convenient proximity to a shipping trade that consumed constant supplies of marine “junk.” Corner’s sign enumerates the things it traded in: Anchors and Chains – Rope – Canvas Covers – Blocks and Falls – Boat and Ship Supplies – Blasting Mats – We Buy Old Rope.

Junk stores like Edward Corner’s were once ubiquitous in every American port city, servicing the marine sector by supplying ships with the equipage they needed, and also becoming conduits funneling scrap metal, rope, canvas, and other raw materials back into production of other sorts – to iron foundries, paper mills, and the like. “Junk,” in fact, was once synonymous with marine store, the term referring to the old rope collected to be reused again as ships’ fenders, padding, and new rope. Salvage wasn’t thrown away, but was valuable as raw material (and shares its root with “salvation”).

Here’s one of my favorite images of 19th-century junk shop, from Puck:Philadelphia was once known as the “Workshop of the World.” We made stuff and were extremely good at it. Until the mid-19th century, Philadelphia was the most productive and successful American city, outpacing even New York City. After the Civil War, the city’s many small industries flourished and made an unbelievable variety of things, from surgical fabrics and woven rugs to silk hosiery, finely-machined metal parts, ships’ cannons, and locomotives. The small industries were, together, nothing less than a great big factory.

Now, of course, no American city can make such claims. The vacant Edward Corner store, its signage fading by the day, is one marker of this reality. If we look across the street to the Sugar House Casino, we can see the decline of manufacturing from a different perspective: nothing is produced here, and in fact many of the casino’s customers are, undoubtedly, people who used to have good paying jobs inside factories. If the building promoted itself like Edward Corner, I wonder what it would proclaim as its stock in trade. Hope – Anticipation – Excitement – Chance – Escape – We Buy Old Dreams.

Armstrong 1955

Last week we were in upstate, New York, for the July 4th break. I found this book on an antiquing excursion to Cuba. At first, I thought it was a yearbook, bound as it is in a simple cover made of coarse buckram.

But no, it’s actually a catalog for Armstrong floor coverings. For those who don’t know (I didn’t) Armstrong is based in Lancaster, PA and is a $2.9 billion company. It was founded in 1860 as a two-man cork-cutting shop in Pittsburgh.

Being a student of dubious business practices, I was amused by this bit of apocrypha from their company history: “Armstrong was among the first American entrepreneurs to discard the old business maxim of Caveat emptor–‘Let the buyer beware’–and replace it by practicing the principle of ‘Let the buyer have faith’.”

Armstrong published Cork: Being the Story of the Origin of Cork, the Processes Employed in Its Manufacture & Its Various Uses in the World To-day, in 1909. It includes all sorts of information about cork, including cutting, shaping, and pressing it into different shapes to make bottle stoppers, life preservers, and yes, floor tiles.
By 1955 the company had come a long way, offering petroleum-based surfaces (i.e., linoleum) for floors, walls, and cabinets. The catalog says, “Today’s decorating trends call for color, design, and texture.” Indeed:

Even the most enthusiastic proponents of retro chic, I don’t think, would do this to their houses. This kind of decor took balls, and post-war designers, housewives, and manufacturers were clearly up to the task. I mean, look at that kitchen!

Here are some more great pages from the catalog:But my favorite lines of Armstrong linoleum floor coverings are those that are imitations of other floor coverings. Some examples are:

wood“Amish” (meaning, braided) rugsPersian rugsfloral rugs (check out the fringe!)and even shag carpetingYou can read Armstrong’s 1909 treatise on cork here. But to peruse the mammoth catalog of 1955 floor coverings (including sundries and other departments not featured in this post) you’ll have to come to my house.

eBay: A Marketplace of Stuff (and Information)

A couple of months ago, I was invited by my friends in the history department at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, to visit the campus and give a public talk on the history of pawnbroking and anti-Semitism. I had a really great time, enjoyed being able to eat fresh boiled peanuts, and even go to do some antiquing in a town south of Gainesville called Micanopy (http://welcometomicanopy.com/). I would love to go back. When it’s not so hot.

While there, I also worked with the graduate students in history, meeting with a few of them individually to talk about their projects – very creative and ambitious – and leading a seminar for the History of Capitalism group. I talked about how I went about researching my article, “Wishful Thinking: Retail Premiums in Mid-19th-Century America,” to be published in the December issue of Enterprise and Society, on the history of retail premiums (aka, free stuff) in America and how they might have motivated otherwise reluctant consumers to engage in the new consumer revolution at mid century.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time talking about the value of looking at a variety of primary sources, many of which are now, of course, available digitally, such as census records and directories, early American newspapers, and pre-1923 books. But I failed to mention one of my most important places to find primary source material – and lots of it. And that is eBay. Each day eBay is host to millions of listings. They are cataloged, in their own way, inhabiting various categories from sporting goods to collectibles to clothing to electronics. You can search by keyword in titles alone or within listings’ descriptive text to broaden or narrow your focus. Results, of course, are widely varied, combining the serendipity and randomness of the stuff people happen to be selling at that particular moment and their own idiosyncratic way of identifying, categorizing, and describing that stuff.

Importantly, searching eBay is free. You don’t have to purchase a subscription to access the site, and you don’t even have to purchase anything once you’re there. But you can nevertheless benefit from knowing that certain things are out there, possibly the only known examples of their type – whether pieces of engraved letterhead from a particular company or an odd Depression-era curio. You can find documents about and photographs of certain artifacts as well as the artifacts themselves. For researchers interested in reference copies (where condition is less important and you simply want a reading copy and not a first edition, e.g. ), or for those who need illustrations for publication, eBay is a good source to turn to. You can often pick up things on the cheap, and images, especially from popular publications like Harper’s and Leslie’s, are well represented. It’s often less expensive to purchase something on eBay that you can own yourself than to pay reproduction and permission fees if you intend to use the image to accompany a book or a journal article.

Certainly, amateur descriptions of items for sale cannot can replace the rich metadata created by trained and experienced catalogers. And nothing can replace the comprehensiveness of institutional collections that have been acquired with thought and care over many years. But for those who can’t easily travel to far-flung repositories and who might not have access to high-powered digital databases, eBay is a research tool, however unorthodox, worth considering.

The images in this post came from searches I did for old hats on eBay (actually, “bowler hat”), which resulted in thousands of hits. Among other things, I could find ads for and descriptions of old hats, photographs of people wearing hats, pieces of letterhead from hat companies, and, even the real thing.