John Steinbeck on Antiques

After dwelling about how much I missed reading Steinbeck on one of my blogs I recently dusted off a favorite from the bookshelf and found myself immediately absorbed and quickly turning pages just like the old days. But when I came to an abrupt halt during the very start of Steinbeck’s journey in Travels with Charley in Search of America and realized I had to share. Here’s John Steinbeck’s take on antiquing back in 1962, the original publication date:

“I can never get used to the thousands of antique shops along the roads, all bulging with authentic and attested trash from an earlier time. I believe the population of the thirteen colonies was less than four million souls, and every one of them must have been frantically turning out tables, chairs, china, glass, candle molds, and oddly shaped bits of iron, copper, and brass for future sale to twentieth-century tourists. There are enough antiques for sale along the roads of New England alone to furnish the houses of a population of fifty million … If the battered, cracked, and broken stuff our ancestors tried to get rid of now brings so much money, think of what a 1954 Oldsmobile, or a 1960 toastmaster will bring–and a vintage Waring mixer–Lord, the possibilities are endless! Things we have to pay to have hauled away could bring fortunes.

“If I seem to be over-interested in junk, it is because I am, and I have a lot of it, too–half a garage full of bits and broken pieces. I use these things for repairing other things. Recently I stopped my car in front of the display yard of a junk dealer near Sag Harbor. As I was looking courteously at the stock, it suddenly occured to me that I had more than he had.”

There’s a lot there. Steinbeck kind of got it but largely missed it all at once. He’s disgusted by the pure amount of junk available, and it’s this very availability which makes it junk from his perspective. Here he’s dead-on to a certain degree–yes, there’s a lot of garbage out there–yet at the same time this is a case where his layman’s eye suffocated the imagination as certainly had he looked deeper into that pile of “battered, cracked, and broken stuff” he’d have unearthed more than a few gems.
John Steinbeck First Day Cover

The line about the ’54 Oldsmobile and other specific items of his time was funny both then and now for different reasons. But it’s this mindset that, for example, caused my grandmother to throw out shoe boxes filled with my father’s baseball cards. It’s only in recent years where we’ve begun to think about everything in terms of future value. That is we who are the confirmed pack rat. Ironically it’s this mind set which leads to a lack of value, something I’ve already observed when dusting off keepsakes hidden away in the 1980’s. Oh, it’s not universal, certainly items of value do exist which were manufactured in the past 20-25 years, however what I’m condemning is the manufactured collectible whose supply often far outreaches demand.

Returning to Steinbeck’s time and how his junk turned into treasure over the passing years: scarcity was created because Steinbeck, my grandmother, and yours too, paid to have their junk hauled away. Once the nostalgia boom hit the next generation had to work even harder to hunt down the very items their elders had carted to the junk yard. I am, of course, simplifying this all into a greater idea, but in the end it was his viewpoint which helped to create value.

Finally, what collector hasn’t found himself at a show or in a shop having that sudden realization that my stuff’s better than this guy’s stuff! This is how dealers are born!