Sunday, March 13, 2011

Antique Shows and Material Culture

Burgess Anchovy PasteRecently my 16-year-old son and I went to a large indoor flea market in Northern Virginia.  Hundreds of vendors were selling antique tools, furniture, toys and a potpourri of other items.  It was a bonanza for those interested in seeing, touching and buying something from the past.

And, indeed, these and countless other antique shows can help people interact with artifacts in a way often not possible in museums.  My son is very knowledgeable about history, and his exposure to such shows has been enormously instructive.  I also have gained valuable insights into different cultural and social periods.

At this most recent show, I bought an old English pot lid.  Pot lids are small ceramic containers that housed various household commodities in the mid-19th to early-20th centuries.  They are collectible because of their printed tops, frequently ornate designs, and advertising what we would now consider offbeat products.

The one that I purchased, which is black and white and measures three and one-half inches in diameter, once contained Burgess’s Genuine Anchovy Paste (“for Toast Biscuit & c”).  It includes the royal coat of arms and provides the company’s addresses. 

Among other products conveyed in such pots (with a lid and a base) were various toothpastes (carbolic, white cherry, betel nut, areca nut, saponaceous) ; salves (eye salves, “miraculous” salves); cold cream; shaving cream; and potted meat.  These were the disposal containers of their day—the equivalent of our glass and plastic bottles.  Now they are eagerly sought, especially if in excellent condition.  For more information, see:

Of course, this pot lid was only one of thousands of unusual items that we encountered.  There was the dealer who had small shipwreck pottery from the 17th century that was extracted from the South China Sea.  I also was intrigued by an array of old telephones; full disclosure:  I have a fully functional one from 1950 that I use in one of my rooms.  And then there was that 1907 University of Virginia law school diploma.

Over the years, I have acquired many interesting items from such antique shows, rarely anything expensive.  A few years ago I found two splendid TIME magazines. One was from September 4, 1939, at the outset of World War II, with Winston Churchill on the cover and the commentary, “The blow has been struck.”  The other was a post-D-Day issue (June 19, 1944) with Eisenhower on the cover and the caption, “He loosed the fateful lightning.”

One final example of my finds is a small, ornate brass box that British Princess Mary used to send cigarettes and other items to servicemen at Christmas 1914, the first year of World War I.  It is fascinating to think a British solider once owned and, no doubt, cherished this box, perhaps even on the front lines.  See:

My point here is a recurring one in these blogs:  History surrounds us and that old and even seemingly obsolete items tell a story.  For these and many other items, whether I purchased them or not, I have been sparked to do new, interesting research.  And invariably, my understanding of history has been enhanced. 

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