Skip to main content

Collecting History

May 2024
10min read

Wherever you travel in this country, you have a good chance of bringing a piece of the past home with you

I drove twenty thousand miles and got just one real bargain. That was up the Hudson River on a boisterous, wind-scrubbed October day fifteen years ago. My friend Harris is an antiques dealer who at the time was specializing in live steam: elegant old working models of freight locomotives, tugboats, ocean liners. He had spotted a tiny ad buried in the part of The New York Times where they usually herald auctions of kitchen equipment; it announced a live-steam sale that Saturday in Claverack, New York. Harris was jubilant. No other dealer would see the ad. He would come home loaded down with finely crafted rarities.

We got up early—if you’re even a mildly dedicated seeker of antiques, you find yourself getting dressed in the dark a lot —and headed north. My new girlfriend, Carol, came along, sleepily amazed that anyone would want an old thing enough to sit in a frigid station wagon at dawn, trying to suck warmth out of wilting paper coffee cups. We got to the sale, and Harris was right: there weren’t any other antiques dealers there. Nor did his absent colleagues miss much. What was being sold, from a bizarre heap on a hill, was dozens of steam radiators.

Harris swore and grumbled, sourly amused. Carol pointed to a desolate flea market that had grown up in the shadow of the great radiator sale. “Maybe it won’t be a total loss,” she said to me. “Maybe there’s a mug there.”

I became full of fond condescension. I’d been collecting occupational shaving mugs for three years. The chances of that sparse huddle of card tables producing one were nil. I started to tick off what I knew would be there: a broken Barbie doll, some forks, a flashlight. “You can’t be sure until you’ve looked,” said Carol with the cheery ignorance of the neophyte. She walked over to the nearest table, glanced down at it for ten seconds, picked something up, and said, “Is this one?”


It was a rare and perfect one. It showed a lumberyard. It cost forty dollars at a time I easily could have sold it for three hundred. Amazed, I gave the dealer two twenties, wondering with collector’s logic—which is a faith in utter absurdities—whether my luck had changed and this was the way things were going to go from then on. But nothing had changed, and it never happened again.

I should say something about occupational shaving mugs, for they were the mainspring that drove me back and forth across half the country. If you were, say, a carpenter and lived between the Civil War and the First World War, you got shaved in a barbershop. Like the saloon, the barbershop was a great clubhouse for the working class, and men would go there to catch up on the newspapers and exchange gossip. If you were a regular, you had your own mug. The barber would order it for you, and when he did, a near-sighted craftsman in one of the big Midwestern barber-supply companies would take a porcelain blank (these came from the china manufactories of Europe), paint a picture of a man sawing a plank or driving a nail, fire it in a kiln, paint your name above the picture in elaborate gold, fire it again, and ship it to your barber. You would pay—perhaps as much as five dollars. I liked to think of Americans taking enough pride in their trade to spend a week’s wage memorializing it.


Anyway, that’s what I collected. The mug’s cost rose according to the rarity of the occupation depicted. At the time, I was paying around a hundred dollars for the more common trades —plumber, mechanic, baker—and up to three hundred dollars for the more esoteric ones. About the most esoteric I ever got was a man who rented rowboats for a living.

Mugs were scarce. They’d been sought early (pioneering collectors in the 1930s actually bought them out of the old barbershops), and antiques dealers all knew about them, knew they were valuable. I drove from Massachusetts to the Midwest looking for them, and I don’t think I found more than a dozen on the road. As I went, I began buying other antiques, an old tool here and a painted sign there until it sometimes seemed as if I were trying to gather the parts of a huge and incoherent jigsaw puzzle that, once assembled, would show The American Past. There was a sharp and particular pleasure in ferreting out antiques, but I find that now my warmest memories of the process lie elsewhere: in the look of the towns I drove through, the people I spoke with, and the sense of a vanished civilization I got from the leavings of it that I brought home with me.

But mugs came first. My father had picked up a few of them before World War II. I’d paid no particular attention to them all the time I was growing up, but instantly upon my graduating from college in 1970 some odd variant of separation anxiety made them objects of formidable desire. I wanted more.

Eventually I fell prey to the classic collector’s folly: I bought something totally unrelated to my main collection.

I had good luck at first. At a flea market in western Connecticut— then, as now, a cornucopia of antiques—I found a mug with a crisp, bright image of a pre-World War I Harley-Davidson motorcycle on it; over the course of half a year I wheedled a barbershop owner in Tarrytown, New York, into selling a mug, born in the shop, that showed the town’s first motorized hook and ladder, bought 1911; and late one winter night Harris took me a couple of hours up the parkway to stand stamping my feet on black, searing-cold earth while a dealer pulled from his barn a carved-oak mug rack from a hotel barbershop.

Then they dried up. There were no more mugs. I met some other collectors and managed to pry loose one or two; I drove to an auction in the ancient Pennsylvania town of Ephrata and got a nice iceman for too much money ($125); but the antiques shops and shows were empty.

By now, though, I was fully formed as a collector, which meant being willing to go on the longest quest on the faintest provocation. “I think,” a dealer would say, squinting with a patently false memory, “a fellow over by Creever’s Bridge had some occupationals. I think he had an undertaker and ... oh, maybe a biplane.”

Two things were immediately evident here: Creever’s Bridge was at least eighty miles away; and there were no mugs there. But off I’d go, passing through half a dozen town squares, each with its Civil War memorial, a triangle of cannonballs and a pot-metal Union soldier in his cloak and forage cap. And at last I’d come to Creever’s Bridge and find the antiques store, and it would have some stoneware jugs and a trestle table and a wicker baby carriage. The collecting impulse drives you to do many preposterous and obsessive things, but there is one real kindness about it, and that is the fact that the disappointment at not finding what you’re after is never keen enough to destroy the pleasure of the search. You’re more excited when you’re on your way to Creever’s Bridge than you are sad when you get there.


Nevertheless, I did get tired of coming home empty-handed from Pennsylvania whistle-stops, and eventually I fell prey to the classic collector’s folly: I bought something totally unrelated to my main collection.

It was a pretty nice thing: a chromolithograph published sometime after the turn of the century that showed an immense stone easel holding a stone tablet. Civil War veterans, graybearded in their faded blue and butternut, stared up at it while in the distance their younger counterparts crossed bayonets under a peppering of benign shellbursts. On the forty-story stone monolith were graven the names of every sizable Civil War battle, and at the top of it was space for the recipient of the print to write in his name. My particular veteran had been named Freelon Starbird and, as a key at the bottom explained, he had been wounded at Stones River.


I was pleased with this big, surreal print, but gradually I found that it had opened floodgates. Now I might buy anything.

At about this time a friend looking at my shaving-mug rack filled with the white-and-gold cups, each bearing the name of its owner, said to me, “You’ve got a regular little graveyard there, haven’t you?”


But I didn’t see it that way. The things seemed full of life to me, the little figures on them gravely sawing and hammering, driving horsecars, hauling freight, carrying hods, bolting boilers, busily whacking together the scaffolding of the whole nineteenth century. And I found that almost any remnant had the same power to summon up for me the era that produced it.

Like any other good American, I’m fond of our steam locomotives. I don’t have anything like the real train buff’s terrifying knowledge of them, but with their comprehensible mechanism and the weight of our Industrial Revolution resting easily on their lean boilers, they are wholly satisfying icons. So I next bought a cast-iron toy locomotive that I felt put across with great economy—as old toys do—the creature it represented.

This turned out to be a fake, as I should have suspected, given the asking price of fourteen dollars. I was angry and disgruntled, but not enough so to prevent me from buying another iron toy—this one a racing car—when an antiques show in a Bucks County firehouse turned out to be mugless.

Now that I was being less parochial in my acquiring, I wanted everything I saw. That spring I particularly wanted a weather vane. I would come across them, their copper turned a lovely dark green by decades of weather and here and there a remnant of the original gold leaf giving off a sunken flash. But I discovered I was a snob. I’d been able to buy the best shaving mugs, but even fifteen years ago, when you could get a perfectly good weather vane for two hundred dollars, the best of them were going for eight and ten thousand. (It was easy to think how their original owners would have reacted to the knowledge that the mundane fixtures beneath whose pivotings they worked out their lives would someday command a sum big enough to pay for their farm, their neighbor’s, and a good chunk of the mill owner’s property to boot.) I held fast to my hauteur, passed on the lesser examples that I could afford, and as a consequence never did get a weather vane.


There were a good many evocative things, of course, that were beyond my grasp. I remember seeing at the sumptuous Winter Antiques Show at the 7th Regiment Armory in Manhattan (a show so rarefied that going through some of the booths gave me the edgy feeling of having wandered unbidden into somebody’s highly formal dining room) a hair-raising, definitive piece of Americana. It was a note, scribbled from Lexington Green on the morning of April 19, 1775, saying that the militia had clashed with British regulars, men were dead, and the king’s troops were moving on to Concord; have the militia ready to meet them there. This document would have cost close to half my yearly salary, but it still gives me pleasure to remember holding it, the rich, heavy old paper and the rusty scribble of its momentous message.

The biggest thing I ever got I found far from my usual circuit, in an antiques shop high up in the mountains near Georgetown, Colorado. It was a ten-foot section of dark wood trim from a barroom. Reverse painted glass panels set in explosively carved oak cartouches said things like SEGARS and RYE WHISKY. I thought it was wonderful but lost my nerve and bought it for Harris instead of me. The dealer shipped it east in a wooden crate so substantial that it cost Harris seventy-five dollars just to have it carted away. He sold the bar fixture within a week, and I regret not having it.

In fact, I regret not having everything I passed up. This is one of the crueler aspects of collecting: all the stuff that got away simply gleams in memory. I can still torment myself with the thought of a mug showing a batter slamming one into the stands that I let go because the asking price of $225 seemed too steep. I thought of it a year ago, when I watched a far less spectacular baseball mug go at auction for $1,300.

And yet, all in all, my spate of collecting brought me far more pleasure than frustration. And it was a pleasure always available. Some areas are richer than others in antiques— the whole of Pennsylvania is good, the strange upstate New York counties where all the residents are fat tend to be barren—but there is likely to be sometime interesting, anywhere.

A friend looking at my shavingmug collection once said to me, “You’ve got a regular little graveyard there, haven’t you?”

In Guttenberg, Iowa, I got a nice red-and-white banner full of stylized Dauntless dive bombers and bearing the exhortation ON LAND ON SEA IN THE AIR —LETS GO USA! KEEP ‘EM FLYING! REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR! Near the superb granite ghost town of Calumet on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I found a galvanized bread maker on whose cover were stamped encomiums from the 1904 world’s fair and full instructions. When I got it home, I found it worked so efficiently that for a few weeks, until the imperatives of late-twentieth-century life reasserted themselves, we actually made our own bread. Up in Duluth I bought a copy of Wehmann Brothers’ Hundred Best Irish Jokes, whose inscrutable contents offered a cautionary lesson to anyone who has ever tried to understand what people were like in the past: Not only were none of the jokes funny, but there was not a clue as to why anybody would ever have thought them funny.

So I drove and drove, year in and year out, over roads parched with summer and terrifying with winter sleet, past a hundred county seats with their foursquare, suitably cupolaed red-brick buildings, up into the hills where ash-colored stores offered me old fishhooks and caked blue bottles and, once, a complete human skeleton in a coffin (asking price: $425).

I ended up with about 110 occupational shaving mugs and an immense miscellany that may not represent a very distinguished collection but which remains eloquent to me. I’m not buying much these days. My life has changed considerably and, among other things, a five-year-old son has a claim on my quondam collecting funds.

Nor do I spend a great deal of time with all the stuff I bought. Some of it is gone. Years ago a friend, having spent the night in my apartment, carefully emptied his ashtray into the wastebasket as he left, and the resulting fire did in a good deal of memorabilia, including Freelon Starbird’s Civil War veterans lithograph (although when I came to write a novel about the American Revolution, I appropriated that satisfying name for both the hero and the book). But every now and then I’ll come across some unlikely survivor—a schedule of the Iron Steamboat line from Manhattan to Coney Island, 1883; a brass-and-wood patent model of a steam escape valve still capable of supple gyrations—and I’ll be oddly reassured.


I suspect that anyone who collects has something of the feeling of gathering reference points to a vanished era. In themselves the fragments may not be especially significant, but each of them has something to say about how Americans once lived their lives. Get them together, and they can impart a sense of continuity and permanence. The world that made them has disappeared, but here and there above the waves of time you can make out the top of a spire, a bit of cornice, some fancy ironwork, and perhaps a dormer window giving from the past onto the present.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.