Collecting things

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.

Civil War Union coat buttons

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.

The manufacturer’s insignia on the back of the buttons

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.

These are my favorites: Confederate infantry buttons. I love the solid brass construction. I love the way the soil content of the battlefields they were dug from gives each a different patina. I love the big, blocky, “I.”

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.

10 Responses

  1. Ebi Atawodi says:

    Love this! There is something to be said about collectors and what they collect. Let’s see, mine include:

    Tins – all shapes, sizes, ages, types.
    Monocle – Helps having a subscription
    Fridge Magnets – To the point where people now buy me magnets when they visit a new city/country which perhaps forfeits the purpose.

    Oh and my father is a pilot too and ex-military (air force) hurray for flying fathers :)

  2. Gary Aston says:

    Sweet little post Meagan. I guess we’re all collecting memories, whatever we horde.

  3. martcol says:

    What a beautiful post. I admit that I have had a few glasses of whiskey but it made my eyes water a little (that’s not the same as cry). I am fifty, but I still love to collect things an my pockets always have one or two found treasures in them. Might be a nail or screw or an important artefact that only I know the true value of!

  4. Jonas says:

    This is great Meagan! It’s amazing how the process of collecting can be inherited like so many of our other traits. I wrote a similar little post about my grandpa’s coin collection: http://www.rocketfoo.com/2009/06/21/collecting-life/

  5. Justin says:

    Awesome post. Do you still have these? I’d love to see them. Ive seen the owls :) (PS I love the “post” button, haha. I wonder where you got that from…)

  6. Paul says:

    Meagan you are so cute and talented. Your boyfriend is a lucky guy.

  7. Spelletjes says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article! btw: I like your logo! :)

  8. Larry says:

    I loved this post Meagan. Beautiful writing.

  9. Becca says:

    I have read this again and again in the last couple of years. I am an oddments collector in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I love that the spirit of hunting–the heart palpitations, the quivering hands, the sense of momentarily being at the center of a whirling Koosh-ball of time, when you hold that decades- or centuries-old treasure and step into the mind of the soul who dreamed it up–I love that this spirit is universal. I hope your writing twines its way into a magazine someday, a collectors’ rag, maybe even The New Yorker….take care, and hope you never give up collecting.

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