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The Hidden World of Objects: A Deep Dive Into America’s Collection Craze

by Ben Richman

[photo: Barbara Hatsfeild sitting with her antique chair collection originally published spring 2020]


Though the object’s existence seemed to confound logical practicality, it was still bought and possibly cherished by someone before it ended up in one of the many stalls at a flea market in rural Ohio. My eye was taken by the large ceramic sculpture in the shape of a high heeled boot. It was surrounded by many similarly ridiculous, yet beautiful objects, which filled Jamie’s Flea market located in Amherst Ohio. The amount of stuff was headache inducing. I visited the flea market after writing about it for another Grape article on local attractions in Lorain County and was super excited to find the strange and cooky items hidden in the stalls of the large warehouse. Once I got there and spent time wandering the aisles I couldn’t wrap my head around why people would devote so much time and energy into these collections of beer signs, creepy figurines, Princess Dye plate sets, and commemorative stamps. What happens when we give attention to the lifeless things in our lives? What do these objects say about ourselves, our history, and our culture? Is our obsession with things part of capitalist materialism, or do objects give us something more than superficial fulfilment?

Our collections can be symbols of pride, unhealthy clutter, or both. America’s collecting craze, however, has unexpected origins that look completely different from the famous collections of today, which fill Guinness World Record books and roadside museums. One of America’s first collectors was bank mogul J.P Morgan. In the 18th century, collectors like Morgan wanted to create a new cultured and refined past for America, which went against European perceptions that America was a cultureless backwater. Morgan set out to collect renaissance paintings and tapestries stripped from mansions and churches, German wood carvings, oriental porcelains, Napoleon's watch, Catherine the Great’s snuff box and more. His goal was to make a trip to Europe unnecessary. He started out with the goal of bringing European symbols of culture and history to America, but soon found that once he started he couldn’t stop. He was addicted to shopping for anything that made him feel equal with kings and emperors. Though present day collectors don’t have as haughty of goals or collections with as large a price tag, they still feel that insatiable urge to fill their lives with objects that bring them some type of magic.

Today if you can think of a type of object, there is probably someone out there who collects it. Collections range from stamps and coins to umbrella sleeves and back scratchers (Not a joke, both those collections exist!) Barbara Hartsfeild’s three room museum in Stone Mountain Georgia holds the largest collection of miniature chairs, totalling more than 3,000. Her collection includes “radio chairs, jungle chairs, salt and pepper chairs, patriotic chairs, a chair in a bottle, and a tiny chair earring holder that holds earrings that are all even tinier chairs.” Barbara, who has worked as a psychiatric nurse for the past 40 years, discovered her passion for mini furniture while writing an article about child psychiatric health. She bought a miniature chair and put a small doll on it in order to help inspire her writing on young children, and as she says “I just fell into it.” The tiny chairs hold a magical cuteness. Her series of tiny wooden rocking chairs look as if they were made for cartoon mice or mystical fairies. The chairs consumed her and somehow she was able to find thousands more, all with different variations, themes, and designs. Collections, though they may seem silly, have power.

After wandering through the flea market I found myself at a cute booth that seemed to have more of the same kitchy items. This booth, however, had a nautical theme, and seemed perfect for anyone decorating a rental beach condo or seaside Airbnb. There were paintings with anchors and lots of model boats, as well as antique chess sets and tables that held vintage glass bottles and beachy souvenirs. One object, however, stood out from the rest through its mixture of both cuteness and creappiness. A seashell pink box with silver studs glued on its top surrounding the painted face of a 20’s flapper with a silver studded headpiece topped with a blue feather. I immediately asked the man working the stall where he got this box.

“My wife made it.” He said, pointing to the cheery woman who was making conversation with other vendors across the aisle.

As I talked with the man more, I discovered that Wade and his wife traveled the country, going to yard sales and other markets ever since they retired. Wade explained to me that they look for things that they think they can sell for a higher price. Wade was tall with salt and pepper hair and a friendly smile. He showed me an antique chess table that he had attached to intricate brown legs. While investigating the table legs he found a square handmade nail head. He did some research and discovered that that specific nail was common for nails made in the 1800’s. He seemed proud as he discussed his techniques for building and rehabbing the materials that he collected. Though he had a vast collection of antiques he wasn’t an expert collector.

“Before I retired I worked for NASA making rocket ships.” he explained, “And my wife was an MRI technician.” It was then that his wife returned to the stall. I complimented her on her 20’s flapper box only to find that Wade had not been completely honest about its creation.

“It wasn’t all me. We made the box together.” She said, unabashedly, though her husband began to blush. “He painted the face and picked out the studs,” she revealed. The box turned into a symbol of their relationship. Within the collecting and rehabbing of objects there was a hidden artistry and passion that was represented perfectly in this friendly couple. Of course I bought the box as a token of my gratitude for their friendliness. I had nothing to use it for and didn’t really have a place to put it. I moved some things around on my desk and propped it against the wall. The creepy eyes of the flapper woman stared back at me as I looked at the clutter of my room: the paintings I borrowed from my parents' house, the various decorative mirrors I’ve gotten from thrift shops, candle sticks, souvenirs, my growing collection of books, and my piling clothes. I took a deep breath in and decided to go through each object and give them the attention they deserved.

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