Taking up a Collection

Flea-market finds


in Archive


Collecting always seems to start with rocks. My pack-rat father was explaining to me that his first collection was a box of strangely colored stones from the roadside near his home in Tecumseh, Kansas. He remembered one particularly exciting day in his collecting history. “I remember finding a pile of small clear crystals in the ditch along a driveway when I was probably in the 2nd or 3rd grade,” he told me. “I was immediately convinced they were diamonds and filled my pockets. But then I remembered a family gathering where we churned ice cream and the look of the salt that was added to the freezer. I finally put one to my tongue and confirmed it was salt. I was a very disappointed boy that day.”


  • Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America by Maureen Stanton. 336 pages. The Penguin Press HC. $26.95.

As my faux-gemstone collecting father, so with early man. Maureen Stanton reports in Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America that the first evidence of collecting by Homo sapiens was discovered in a cave. Someone had selected pretty stones with no evident mechanical purpose, gathered them together, and arranged them. My conversation with my father started because of Stanton’s book. I had turned to the book for information on this strange collecting habit we humans have. What made that long ago human pick up these particular, useless rocks and keep them in his dwelling? What made my father overstuff our basement with cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, and what looked to me like a collection of indistinguishable glass bottles but what he swore was actually important historical pharmaceutical relics? I was hoping Killer Stuff would provide some answers.

Maureen Stanton gives an anthropological explanation for why we feel the need to beautify our homes with personal objects. She follows around a flea market merchant who specializes in early American housewares and furniture. She tries to explain the economics behind sudden rises and falls in the value of certain eras, certain objects, and certain manufacturers. She gives a brief history of Antiques Roadshow. She tosses off a personal narrative of her first dabbling in antique collecting. She speculates on how eBay changed the antiques market. She attempts to philosophize on fakery and frauds. And by the end of it, I was even more confused by the subject than I had been at age 8, when I was dragged against my will from flea market to antique store to roadside yard sale to look for more glass bottles.

Killer Stuff suffers from Stanton’s magpie attention span. When she should dig in, she scatters. When she should strive for a little distance, she butts in. And by focusing almost exclusively on the vendors and the shopkeepers, she neglects the other half of flea-market America: the buyers and the collectors. If they show up at all in the book, it is because they are particularly famous (John Malkovich) or particularly foolish, being duped by inflated prices or outright forgeries.

The economics of new products is driven by very familiar things. There’s supply, there’s demand. There’s competition, there’s innovation. There’s the shift in manufacturing jobs to the Global South. But when it comes to the flea market world, and the antiques market, prices are mostly set by things such as desire and passion. It’s a saucier version of capitalism. Prices and values rise and fall based on fad or the waxing interests of influential collectors, occasionally spiraling into the madness that was the resale market of Beanie Babies. And like the Beanie Babies, things that once would sell for fortunes at auction suddenly find themselves reduced to a bit of fabric and some artificial stuffing. Many of the vendors in Killer Stuff are people trying to catch the tail of someone else’s passion, hoping to follow a rocketing market interest into a new stratosphere of retail. A piece of redware in Stanton’s book is bought for $800, resold for $10,000, and a similar piece is later sold for $16,000. Other types of pottery used to fetch such prices, but interest has declined and no one can move the product anymore. No one has any real explanation. But I wanted to know more about what was actually driving the market. What makes someone wake up and say, oh yes, redware, thereby driving up the price of this already valuable pottery. Generally, when I feel unsatisfied by a book, I go looking for another text to fill in the blanks. I realized this time, though, that I had a different sort of source for my curiosity: my own father.

As someone who did not inherit the collecting tendencies of my parents, this obsessive hunt for the singular piece is not something I’ve ever understood. I was witness to it, but I “got it” about as much as I “got” Christianity from my sporadic Sunday school class attendance. I understood it as the thing that kept us from going to the water park on vacation, as there was always just one more flea market my parents had to check out. My father eventually turned his chaotic, boxed up collection of pharmaceutical goods into a functional, open-to-the-public museum, right next door to my mother’s collection-turned-museum of the history of Scouting.

My father’s own collection has the same specific focus as the redware buyer. “For whatever reason, I have always been drawn to the 1880 to 1920 period,” my father tells me. He has a magnificent 19th-century beard, and so he speaks the truth. But even he can’t quite explain it. “When I see a picture of a drug store from this period, I am drawn into it,” he said. “Must be a prior life thing. Dark, small, cluttered, drawers and shelves, loaded with an explosion of different sized, shaped and colored items. The old tools. So I settled on that period, mostly. The shift from all compounding to mostly dispensing pre-made products.”

Avery, a vendor interviewed in Killer Stuff, reports his entry into the antiques world being sparked by the discovery of a glass Franklin Spring water bottle in a dump. He was able to sell it at a bottle show for $350. For him, the thrill is in the profit, of finding someone’s junk, and then turning around to resell it for a huge amount of money. My father gets the same thrill, but from placing the item in his collection and seeing it in its new context. I remember watching my father carefully log each new purchase into a red binder. I remember him fussing over every bottle, every pill roller, every tablet tin as if each was a delicate, living creature. He willingly sacrificed his scarce resources of time and money to be able to nurture his collection.

The eBay revolution has shifted the market in a major way. Many of the vendors in Killer Stuff groan about the site’s influence. It’s now more difficult to find some sucker who inherited his parents’ priceless ceramics collection and then flings it out the door for pennies on the dollar at a yard sale. These vendors have their best days when they find heirs ignorant of or too impatient to research the value of what they have. When the person with all the desire can interact directly with the owner, neither has a need for a middleman such as Avery. But it’s also turned the hunt into a sedentary activity. Part of the joy was sifting through the wide expanse of the worthless and the not-interested. My father told me, “It is not quite so much fun now because it is harder to find pharmacy items in general — eBay has had a large role in that — and something I don’t already have in particular.” He gets excited when telling me that he found a Lilly Ipecac & Opium Powder bottle and corn remedy drops with marijuana just last week in Larned, Kansas, completely unexpected. This was more exciting than typing “corn remedy drops” into eBay and scanning the results.

When Avery and Stanton talk about the value of an antique, they measure it in dollars. I might not totally understand my father’s single-minded focus, but I can empathize with it. He explains why he keeps it up, still slowly building his collection piece by piece: “Every item has a story. I may not know all of it, and with some, it may be a short story, but what fascinates me is what makes it unique, how it fits into the evolution of health care. From the bleeding Knife & Cups to the blistering iron, to the heroin-containing cough syrups (over the counter, no less), to the quack Oxypathor that did nothing, to the tools the druggist used to start with crude herbs (seeds, leaves, roots, etc.) and end up with pills, ointments, lozenges, suppositories, whatever, each item tells a story.” I would rather listen to his story, of history and medicine and people and a profession, over Killer Stuff’s story of capitalism and the magic of a quick buck. • 14 October 2011