My dad is a chronic collector. Every few months he develops a new obsession, rounding up as many of a thing as he can. He inspects, catalogs, and adores each item for months, then trucks it off to a pawn shop or antiques vendor to make room for the next thing.
Here are some of the collections that filled our house over the years, not in any particular order: arrow heads, ink wells, pocket knives, antique belt buckles, military swords, Colt pistols, snuff boxes, Scrimshaw, antique currency, Daguerrotype photographs, vintage postcards, railroad watches, coins, bayonets, guitars, carved wooden animal figurines, tin signs, and most recently Zippo lighters.
It’s hard being a father, and it’s hard being a daughter. When one of you is a quiet, blue-collar, middle-aged man, and the other is a chubby pre-teen girl who loves Pokemon, what is there to say? I decided I could start liking antiques more easily than my dad could make the jump to Pokemon, so in the second grade I started collecting too.
The choice of what to collect was made for me, when a friend of the family who owned Dottie’s Florist & Military Antiques Shop gave me a few tiny buttons from the cuff of a Union soldier’s uniform. They were the size of a dime, gold plated, and had proud eagles on the face. Some had small letters on the chest, indicating what type of soldier wore them (C for calvary, I for infantry, and A for artillery).
The back of each button held the mark of the factory who produced it; some said “Extra Quality”, others “Scovill Mfg Co. Waterbury.” The style of these backmarks, as well as the engraving on the face of the button, told a story about who wore them, where they came from, and what they saw.
In awe of the history of these tiny adornments, I imagined they’d held a man’s sleeve together while he bled out at Gettysburg. I was caught up in the romance of the period, and the detailed craftsmanship of this overlooked military paraphernalia. I wanted more. I also knew this was my ticket to spending time with Dad, a task that eluded me until then.
We spent Saturdays sweating under the brutal Florida sun, scouring dusty flea markets and haggling at roadside antique stands. If we got an early enough start, by the time we arrived home for lunch we’d usually amassed a decent amount of treasure. We’d spread our finds out on the dining room table, pull the appropriate reference books from Dad’s library (this was before we had a computer), and tell each other about what we’d bought.
Some weekends we’d take road trips to Civil War battlefields, or Dad (a pilot at a small local airport) would borrow a plane and fly us to an out-of-state show. These trips took me all around the South, and along the way I heard the stories of other collectors. They were mostly old men, many of them World War II vets with incredible life experiences. I’d guess many of them have since died, and I feel fortunate to have met them.
Collecting plays a huge role in shaping who I am. It’s taught me to love history, enjoy research, and value the experience of the elderly. I’ve learned to appreciate small details and craftsmanship. These experiences also revealed the introverted, nerdy girl I am at heart.
As the story tends to go, once I turned 14 I stopped collecting buttons and started collecting friends, surfboards, and illicit experiences. This put a halt on my relationship with my dad, since I spent my teenage years trying to be someone completely unlike him. He did the same thing at that age.
I’ve since rediscovered the nerdy girl I was before. I love collecting and treasure hunting, and nothing is more precious to me than sitting in companionable silence with someone equally obsessed with details.
I started this post because I was thinking about collecting things, and wondering why I treasure my buttons, dozens of ceramic owls, piles of old cigarette tins, and rows of broken vintage cameras. Each appeals to me for different reasons, and each requires their own post. But I love that sitting down to write about the things I have collected really means writing about my father, my favorite childhood memories, and who I am.