African American natural hair as art
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    Auction Finds

    Brimfield – African American tintypes and a lot more

    I listened as the owner of the booth told a customer about his radio show and how he could guess a caller’s collectible or antique item without seeing it.

    I found the notion unbelievable, and wanted to know how exactly he could do that. The show was called “Psychic Appraisals,” and folks apparently described their item and Gary Sohmers told them what they had. He had been collecting since he was a boy of 8, and had seen his share of stuff.

    Most items, he explained to me later, came in particular colors, so he could guess at the color or any other characteristic of it. That made sense, but it still sounded a little questionable to me.

    Brimfield collectibles and antiques

    Among the items for sale at the Brimfield Antique Show was a stuffed black bear.

    I had wandered into his booth while meandering through the stalls and booths at the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts – that mecca for anyone with an interest in or inkling for collectibles and antiques. My auction buddy Janet has been talking about it forever as if it were a holy land. She had visited Brimfield often when she worked for newspapers in the area.

    Now, I was in New England on my first extended trip, and had arrived when Brimfield had set up for five days of its fall sale. It was an expansive field of tables, tents, stalls and spaces occupied by dealers who seemed to be selling just about everything.

    It reminded me of another gigantic flea market also held twice a year outside Philadelphia called Renninger’s Antique and Farmer’s Market. Both are a fit place for those of us who are connoisseurs of other people’s stuff – either picked up at auction, on a flea-market table, at an estate or yard sale, or on the side of the road discarded as junk.

    Brimfield collectibles and antiques

    Brimfield offered something for everyone - much too much too see and touch.

    The sight of Brimfield, though, put my mind in overload. No way I was going to get through all of this – and I desperately wanted to, because you never know what’s lurking where – in a few hours. I was able to see only one-eighth of what was there.

    I had lingered at Sohmers’ tent because I had spotted on his shelves the kinds of items that grabbed me: Children’s books with African American images. Unfortunately, the books were from the early part of the 20th century, so the images were stereotypical. Sohmers threw out a price for the handful of books: $20 each, the money too much for my pocketbook and the books too offensive to my sensibilities.

    As I stood there flipping through them, I overheard a customer identify the dealer: He had been an expert on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.” Then, I recognized his face and recalled him appraising a 1969 Rolling Stone concert poster on an episode.

    Brimfield collectibles and antiques

    A dealer's stall at Brimfield.

    Sohmers owns Wex Rex Collectibles and Saxonville Auction Services, and hosts the radio show Calling All Collectors. Cheerful and lighthearted, he’s also a standup comedian. A year ago, he raised questions about the rules governing appraisers on the Antiques Roadshow, calling them restrictive.

    At Brimfield, he had laid out an array of old phonograph albums, autographed photos, and other disparate items. What captured my attention weret two tintypes of an African American man and woman – maybe a couple, maybe not. Both were impeccably dressed for their picture-taking, looking directly into the camera.

    Brimfield antique show

    Tintypes of an African American man and woman.

    Tintypes of black people don’t come up often at auction, and when they do, dealers snatch them up like candy. These had some marks and scratches from handling and use, but they were in pretty good condition. Like most photos, the two people were not identified. On the back, someone had simply written in pencil: Tintype Black Man. TinType Black Woman.

    The tintypes were both in gray paper frames with wood grain. The clothing seemed to put the people in the late 19th to early 20th century. These appeared to be studio portraits.

    Tintypes were photos imprinted on thin iron (rather than tin), and were said to be very easy and cheap to process. Street photographers would set up outside fairs and other such events, and “prepare, expose, develop, and varnish a tintype plate in a few minutes, quickly having it ready for a customer,” according to wikipedia. The photos would be placed inside a case, paper sleeve or frame. They were especially popular during the Civil War.

    Sometimes, I have a hard time distinguishing between tintypes and daguerreotype, which is a process involving silver on copper.

    Brimfield collectibles and antiques

    The Dick and Jane basic reader from 1956. I'm sure many a baby boomer remembers it.

    Another item I came across brought back a flood of memories from my childhood: The Dick and Jane reader. I found a copy in another stall at Brimfield, and was immediately drawn to it. As a first-grader, I can remember reading from that book with the familiar children.

    And I remember how simplistic the story and dialogue were:

    “Dick said, Look, look.

    Look up.

    Look up, up, up.”

    Called “The New Fun With Dick and Jane,” the book at Brimfield was published in 1956, with a wholesome nuclear family that not only didn’t look like mine but likely didn’t resemble any of the other millions of children who read the book.

    The series was both repetitive and simple, as one site noted, and the stories were written by well-known people. The characters in the readers were not diversified until 1965, according to the website of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.

    The book was part of the New Basic Readers Series, and the first apparently goes back to 1936. That first book was described as a pre-primer and was the first time in which Dick and Jane were named.

    Another series of books, which I did not recall, was “I Can Read” with stories by Dr. Seuss and illustrations by Maurice Sendak.

    Brimfield antiques and collectibles

    A covered stall at Brimfield.

    Read the other stories from my New England trip: Boston, Portland, Kennebunk and Martha’s Vineyard.

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