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Welcome to the wonderful world of antiques and collectibles! If you haven't yet opened the door to take a peek at all those treasures that cold be yours, now's a great time to do it: Antiquing is quickly becoming one of the most popular pastimes in the United States. If you have opened that door but you'd like a little more insight into what you can do with those treasures once you've found them, or how and where you can make better deals, you've come to the right place. I'm an avid collector, an antiques writer, a sometime picker (one who buys antiques for others), and an all-around enthusiast for the lifestyle. And going on the hunt does become a lifestyle. So perhaps I can unravel some of those not-so-deep mysteries for you and offer a little information that will help you become a more knowledgeable shopper.
My first antique came to me when I married my husband. Into our marriage he brought his clothes, an alarm clock, a pair of scissors, a few books, and an old whiskey bottle he'd dug up in the Utah desert when he was a kid.
I'd have preferred a new Ferrari and a cabin on the lake, but his most treasured possession was that old bottle with the name QUAKER MAID WHISKEY on it. Its bottom was filled with three inches of hard clay, it was scratched and not very pretty, and it was clear glass instead of a beautiful antique color. All in all, there was really little appeal for me in this piece of junk, but it held a sentimental value for my husband because of the way in which he'd fond it. So begrudgingly I cleaned out the clay, washed the bottle, and set it on a shelf for display. And there it sat for a year - something to be dusted, something that was always in the way, something that took up good space.
The bottle looked lonely. I'm one for symmetry in decoration, and I had absolutely nothing that would make a symmetrical display with that old thing, so it sat alone. Then one day, on a whim, I went to a country flea market - my first ever. As I wandered around, perplexed by all the different and strange things people were buying, I discovered a large cardboard box filled with other old bottles. A few didn't look too bad, and I envisioned them as companions to my husband's bottle. In my mind I saw a nice symmetrical display, and I'll admit what I envisioned didn't look too bad. Since the whole box only cost a dollar, I lugged it home and set out a few mates for the Quaker Maid.
After weeks of dusting the new trinkets along with the original one, I began to wonder what they were. My husband's bottle was clearly marked as a whiskey bottle, so the only mystery there was the bottle's age. So I searched the library for a book on antique bottles. Much to my delight, I learned that the Quaker Maid bottle was about 120 years old. The value wasn't much, somewhere around $30 at the time, but the age of the thing really exited me, especially since I'd been reluctant to allow this venerable piece of glass a few inches of shelf space in my home. An authentic Wild West whiskey bottle found buried in the sand - can you imagined the images that conjured up? It was exciting to attach a provenance to my husband's bottle, even if it was a fantasy. Pretty soon that piece of junk became a real piece of western Americana in my description of it to friends.
When I researched the other bottles I'd purchased, I learned that one was closer to 150 years old and had been used in food storage. Three others were about 120 years old and had contained medicine - that old patent medicine that became popular in the late nineteenth century. That was an exciting discovery, too, even though much later I learned that in the bottle world, my purchases were pretty common and not very valuable. Still, carting home a box of genuine antiques for a buck was a new experience for me, and I'll have to admit that those bottles sitting alongside my husband's find did take on an intriguing quality.
A Proud, Growing Collection
Today those few bottles are joined by dozens of others in all colors and shapes. I rotate our bottles with the seasons and for different household decorations. I use bathroom bottles to decorate my bathrooms, and food and kitchen bottles to adorn my kitchen. And I change my displays with the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other bottles stored in boxes in my garage, all worthy of display and begging to be set out for a while. What's more, I love to drag out those boxes and just look at our collection - all of which is, in a sense, the offspring of a single old bottle dug out of the desert sand.
Some of our bottles have value; others sell for only a few dollars. My most recent ventures have been in search of old food bottles with intact paper labels. Original paper labels belonging to the bottle to which they are attached are hard to find and difficult to maintain, so this is an area of collecting my husband and I have never tackled before. I'll admit that I won't pay more than about $15 for a bottle, which makes me pretty cheap, but because of my years of hunting other treasures I know there are some great paper-label bottles out there at the price I'm willing to pay. The only thing is, my set price makes the hunt a little more difficult. But then, hunting is most of the fun for me, even though I do take immense pleasure in owning, too. And while our bottle collection has certainly grown in value and quality far beyond a single Quaker Maid Whiskey bottle with a lump of clay in the bottom, I still love looking for a great deal on a cheap paper-label bottle, or something to put in my bathroom, or something I'm not even aware that I'm looking for until I see it.
The Appeal of Everyday Antiques
Why do I enjoy the thrill of the hunt so much? Because I've discovered that joy of decorating my home with the antiques and collectibles I buy. And these aren't the kind of antiques and collectibles you rope off so no one can sit on them. They're the ones I use every day - the 1930s kitchen utensils, the early-1900s electric lighting, the mid-1800 oil lamps, the circa-1680 German immigrant trunk, the circa-1850 handmade wooden chair, and the circa-1820 solid cherry dresser.
My favorite yellow mixing bowl is part of a popular 1940s set given to many young brides back then. The whole set was a gift to my mother, from her mother, on her wedding day in 1947. Years later, when my grandmother came to live with us, she taught me to cook using those bowls. We mixed sugar cookies in them, and pie filling and bread dough. Eventually three bowls out of the set were broken, but after the lone yellow bowl was handed down to me, I was able to replace the others for just a few dollars, making the set complete again. Now, even though my mother and grandmother are gone, both are still with me in spirit when I pull out the old yellow bowl. It really doesn't matter that the other bowls are replacements; the memories that come with them are genuine. And for me, recapturing memories is a big part of why I love shopping for antiques and collectibles.
They Don't Make Things Like They Used To...
When I shop for my home today, my first thought is something old. I once needed a new spice set, so I went to an antiques mall to find one that had been popular in the 1930s. I found some great old table linens, too, and their fifty years' worth of wear give them an appearance more interesting than new ones. And I mix and match. Who says my fifty-year-old table runner can't go on my two-hundred-year-old table? Or that the table my great-grandfather made in 1870 can't hold a 1940s lamp?
When it comes to antiques and collectibles, no rules dictate what you should like and how you should use what you buy for your home. If you want to rope off an old chair for display purposes only, that's fine. If you want to sit on it, that's fine, too. As you read Everyday Antiques, you'll learn that many household antiques and collectibles had practical uses when they were invented that are just as practical today. And one of the greatest discoveries you might make is that what was created years ago, in many cases, is of better quality than what is created today. That's why my kitchen utensil drawer is full of everything but new utensils. My old spoons are sturdier than anything you can buy brand new today, and you'd have to beat me over the head with my grandmother's wooden rolling pin to get it away from me, because its glide across pie pastry is so much smoother and more experienced than what I got with the rolling pin I purchased shortly after I was married.
Enjoy Your Treasures!
Antiques and collectibles are meant to be enjoyed, either on display or in use. As you read these pages and learn how to do many of the things I've done with my treasures, my wish is that you'll find the same enjoyment in your antiques and collectibles that I've already found, and will continue to find, in mine.
Excerpted from Everyday Antiques. Copyright (c) 2000 by JJ Despain. Reprinted with permission by Storey Communications. All rights reserved.