Auction Finds Uncovering Relics of Our Past Mon, 26 Jun 2017 10:26:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A child’s wonder at a Star Wars thermos Mon, 26 Jun 2017 10:26:22 +0000 Related posts:
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I was standing at a second table I had set up for my block’s annual yard sale when I overheard a mother talking to her son. The boy was about 5 years old and she was explaining the purpose of the plastic thermos in her hand.

What’s it for? the boy asked. You take the top off and put cold water in it, the mother patiently told him. The boy still looked a little puzzled.

She was holding a red Star Wars Ewok thermos with a beige lid. The thermos was sold as one of the companion toys to the 1983 “Return of the Jedi” movie. Ewoks are small bear-like creatures who live on the moon Endor, and made their first appearance in this movie. There were Ewok board games, plush toys, a village, comb, bubble bath, shampoo, among other products.

Star Wars Ewok thermos from 1983.

Star Wars Ewok thermos from 1983.

Those early Star Wars movies are distant but pleasant memories for many people, and some of their associated products are sought after by Star Wars collectors. For this little boy, though, the mystery was in the thermos itself, not the creature painted on the front of it. It always fascinates me to watch as young children discover gadgets from the past – a rotary phone I had at a flea market a few years ago drew every child who passed my table.

It’s not surprising that the boy didn’t recognize the thermos because we don’t use so bulky a container to keep our water cool these days. The new holders are slender and lightweight, and shaped like a soda or baby bottle. Most times we don’t bother to carry them at all (unless we’re working out or jogging); we just drop by a convenience store such as Wawa and buy a cold bottle of water.

I have several of the lightweight bottles and a thin thermos that I no longer use because I, too, choose Wawa.

Star Wars Ewok thermos with lunchbox. Photo from Old Vintage Goods at

Star Wars Ewok thermos with lunchbox. Photo from Old Vintage Goods at

Foot traffic was slow as molasses at the Sunday yard sale that my block shared with another. Only a handful of us set up tables. Near my end of the street it was just me and my neighbor, who was practically giving away her daughter’s books. She was hoping that a teacher would pass through and take them all.

She gave away a 15,000-BTU air conditioner that had once been in her first-floor window. One couple with a small child and a father with a bad back considered taking it off her hands for $20, but decided against it. A pickup man, who was on the street for another matter, agreed to take it for free.

Several people admired the Star Wars thermos but there were no takers – not even for $5. It drew the attention of another passer-by. That would sell on eBay, the man said as I nodded, knowing that was not the case. I had already listed it on eBay and it was not selling. A few on the site sold for $9.99 to $12.99, and those with accompanying lunchbox sold for a few dollars more. The blue Ewok thermos seemed to be more popular than the red.

A Play Skook peg board and pieces.

A Playskool pegboard and pieces.

My table with the thermos held several vintage games and toys, but most of the people who browsed were young mothers and fathers with children under the age of 5. I’m sure many of the parents didn’t even remember most of the items.

One woman a tad older and not accompanied by a child recalled the Playskool pegboard from her childhood. My game came with wooden pegs, cars, blocks and buildings to be used as landscape along a train track painted on the board. Noting all the small pieces, she now realized how dangerous they could be. (Playskool made more than 40 different toys by the 1930s, including pegboards – all meant to develop coordination and stimulate a child’s mind.)

There were also marbles in a pouch, thick cardboard bingo cards and pick-up sticks on my table. I was never sure how the pick-up-sticks game was played (I never had one as a child), so I later Googled. There are several rules to the game, but the key is for each player to pick up one stick scattered haphazardly on a table without disturbing the others.


A pouch full of marbles drew the attention of one little girl.

A group of little girls – who stopped by several times – caught sight of the pouch of marbles, with one of them wondering how you’d play with them. Shoot them, my neighbor said, probably remembering that from her own childhood.

The girls were more interested in the dolls I was selling on another table. One chose a sweetly dressed Madame Alexander Renoir portrait doll in a pink dress that had paled a little from age, while another ignored the dolls and went for a furry gold dachshund.

Did you grow up with any of these toys? What are your remembrances?

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Requiem for the torturous Monday wash day Wed, 21 Jun 2017 15:44:12 +0000 Related posts:
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Whenever I see a vintage cookbook, I quickly reach for it and open it up. I’m usually looking for interesting recipes to try or sweet stories to read.

At auction recently I thumbed through one with recipes from Cape Cod with historical photos, figuring I’d see a few that were native to that New England area. The cookbook was published in the 1980s by the Thornton W. Burgess Society, founded in honor of the conservationist and children’s book writer.

Printed beneath a recipe for Veal Scallopini À Ma Façon was a simple recipe titled “Wash Day Long Ago.” It was written in a stereotypical hillbilly script, and was obviously meant to be funny to anyone who didn’t spend hours with their hands and arms in sudsy water scrubbing clothes.

wash day recipe

A recipe for wash day, which was usually on a Monday.

The origin of this list of instructions is ambiguous. tried to figure out when it was first printed, and could only go back to 1954 when it was published in a newspaper (probably after someone else wondered about its origin). There appear to be several versions, all portraying women as superhuman work mules, some in dialect and others with corrected grammar.

Wash day and washerwomen were such a prominent part of our culture generations ago – both in this country and abroad –  that they were the subject of much prose. Googling, I came across another wash-day tale in a book of morality stories titled “Child-Garden of Story, Song and Play, Vol. 1,” published in 1893. It was titled “A Story for Wash Day.”

“Washing day was over and the tired washerwoman had gone home. A big Basket of clean sweet clothes stood in the laundry. Nearby were the Tubs, leaning against the wall. The Washboard rested against the bench, and the Line hung on the wall. The boiler shone like silver, and beside it stood a basket of Clothespins. The room was very still, and presently the Tub spoke.”

What followed was a litany of pompous speeches by the objects the washerwoman had used that day, each noting their own importance above all others.

wash day

Cover of the Cape Cod cookbook.

In the sky above, the sun had listened to them before it finally spoke. The sun admonished them for leaving out the most important element of this weekly ritual: water (which had silently dripped as they each spoke). The sun then told the story of “bare-armed, bare-footed women, carrying bundles on their heads” to a river to wash clothes using only water and roots to clean them and stones on which to dry them. These women washed without a basket, boiler, tub, washboard, line or clothespin.

“You are all useful and a great help, but when I heard you all boasting of your importance and forgetting the Water entirely I wanted to tell you this story to remind you that sometimes the one who really does the most does not tell of it.”

The sun could have easily been talking about the women who do the washing without fanfare.

That sent me to a poem by Langston Hughes about washerwomen, which I’ve written about along with Big Mama’s wash days. His poem is titled “A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman.” Hughes himself worked in a laundry after the poem was published in Crisis magazine in 1925.

An excerpt:

And I’ve seen you singing, wash-woman. Out in the backyard garden under the apple trees, singing,
hanging white clothes on long lines in the sun-shine.
And I’ve seen you in church a Sunday morning singing,
praising the Almighty, because some day you’re going to
sit on the right hand of God and forget
you ever were a wash-woman. And the aching back
and the bundle of clothes will be unremembered then.
Yes, I’ve seen you singing.

And for you , O singing wash-woman
For you, singing little brown woman,
Singing strong black woman,
Singing tall yellow woman,
Arms deep in white suds,
Soul clean,
Clothes clean, —
For you I have many songs to make
Could I but find the words.


wash day

Veal Scallopini À Ma Façon recipe from the cookbook.

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An actual larger-than-life Dick and Jane Mon, 19 Jun 2017 16:01:31 +0000 Related posts:
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When I saw the pictures of the children in the book, it took me back decades. When I was a child they were like our fictitious rich cousins, always enjoying their good life, with me and millions of other children wandering vicariously among them.

They were the characters in my first-grade readers in Mrs. Rainey’s class (she was one of the sweetest persons, but aren’t all first-grade teachers?). My mother had taught me to read before I started school, so I’m sure I whizzed through the simply written stories.

“Look, Look.

Oh, Oh, Oh.

Oh, Oh.

Oh, Look.”

Dick and Jane books

Dick does his chores, while Sally fools around.

A copy of a bound oversized version of these books was laid out on an auction table recently, along with another that told the story of a similar family whom I was unfamiliar with. Interestingly, these early readers were a total departure from the 19th-century primers I normally come across at auction. Those were dull looking outside but offered more classical and complex tales inside.

Titled “Our Big Book,” the binder at auction contained the first six stories of “We Look and See,” described as the “beginning pre-primer of the  New Basic Readers.” The paper binder had an easel in the back for propping on a table so all children in the classroom could see the tall lettering, even those hiding in the back.

“Look. Look.

Oh, Look.

See Jane.”

Dick and Jane books

A mishap awaits Sally.

Every American child of a certain age learned to read from these Dick and Jane books. The story of Dick and Jane – white, suburban, from a well-groomed and middle class family – was designed to teach us the simplicity and joy of life in two, three and four letter words. It didn’t matter that many of us – both black and white children – knew no one like them. We were focused on learning to read rather than the social implications of the books. And given the mores of the times, any black children in the books would have been poorly portrayed.

“We Look and See” was the first of the books for first grade, followed by “We Work and Play,” “We Come and Go,” “Guess Who” and “Fun With Dick and Jane.”

According to the binder,”We Look and See” from 1951 was written by William S. Gray, Marion Monroe, A. Sterly Artley and May Hill Arbuthnot, and illustrated by Eleanor Campbell. Over the years, the books underwent various updates with different authors and illustrators.

Dick and Jane books

Dick, Jane, Sally and Spot, along with Jane’s Raggedy Ann-style doll.

The Dick and Jane series grew out of a group of textbooks first created in 1909 by William H. Elson that used the classics and folktales to teach children to read. Publisher Scott Foresman & Co. began revising the readers in the late 1920s using new educational methods that had emerged.

During the 1920s, a reading consultant and editor at Scott Foresman collaborated on a book that would present fictional children that real children could identify with, doing normal things that children do. The idea was to create a world that any 6-year-old would enjoy living in while helping them to read through simple and repetitive words.

The result in 1930 was a family consisting of Dick, Jane, Sally, Father, Mother, dog Spot and cat Puff – which most of us children, black or white, could not identify with. The series of Dick and Jane books were a hit, selling millions of copies over the next 30 years, reaching 85 million first graders.

Dick and Jane books

An African American family was added to the series in 1965. Here is Mike and his twin sisters Pam and Penny.

A backlash against the series and its look-say concept began in the 1950s; the books were dismissed as being both boring and a failure at helping children to read. Around that time, another publisher asked Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) to take a crack at creating a story that children would love by using no more than 225 of the 348 words that most of them knew or should know. Geisel – no fan of the Dick and Jane series, either – came back with The Cat in the Hat.”” It is said to have booted Dick and Jane as the most favored of books.

The criticism continued into the 1960s for the series’ lack of diversity in race, culture and gender. Also at this time, President Johnson spearheaded a bill to improve education in poor schools with a nod toward providing educational materials for children who lived in urban areas. In 1965, Scott Foresman added an African American family into the mix: a black child named Mike, his twin sisters Pam and Penny, and their mother and father.

By that time, Dick and Jane books had lost their luster, and ceased publication in 1965. The books continued to be sold until the 1970s.

The family pets, Spot and Puff.

The family pets, Spot and Puff.

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Book of “household hints” is as seamless as time Wed, 14 Jun 2017 14:33:37 +0000 Related posts:
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I seem to be drawn to cookbooks from way back. I’m curious about the recipes and their ingredients, and how different foods and dishes were prepared then compared to now.

I am just as intrigued when I come across those guides whose sole job was to help the little housewife cook, clean and manage her household a little better.

That’s the type I found at auction recently, aptly titled “Fowler’s Blue Book of Selected Household Helps and Guide to Household Economy” by A.L. Fowler from 1925. It was a thin book with a blue cover – unpretentious in its appearance, utilitarian in its purpose.

household hints guide

The cover of the household hints guide by A.L. Fowler in 1925. It appears to have been used quite often in a greasy kitchen.

After getting sniffly past the Introduction addressed to “Mrs. Housewife, Everywhere,” I found that Fowler’s conversational appeal to her seemed to be written to me more than 90 years later.

“How many good housekeepers, in their desultory reading, run across little helpful ideas telling how some other housekeeper has found a way of doing something that is familiar to all in a new and more efficient, and labor, time and money saving way.

“They say to themselves, ‘Now, I will cut that out and save it.’ But the scissors is just out of reach or they are interrupted and lay aside the paper or article; then someone carries it away and the clipping is never done.”

It’s something I do all the time –  although I don’t clip anymore – and I’m sure others to the same. In fact, there’s a page with an article on my kitchen table about fake error pennies. I want to keep it so I’ll know what to look for in real error pennies at auction.

household hints guide

Recipes and an introduction to the household hints guide.

I do find newspaper clippings from the time when everyone read newspapers, along with notes in books, and recipes tucked in cookbooks and recipe boxes.

Fowler’s guide is like so many others that have appropriated the term “blue book.” Blue book appears to be a pretty common name for guides across several specialties: the Kelley blue book for cars, the Blue Book for legal citations, state blue books or almanacs/guides, the Ball Blue Book for canning and preserving, a blue book for bicycles, vintage Little Blue Books on a range of topics, even a blue book for the produce industry. There was also a blue book for a red-light district in New Orleans, telling its users where to find prostitutes, along with ads for cures for venereal diseases.

I came across one of the Little Blue Books several years ago. Published in 1929, it offered tips on how to get a job.

What’s up with the term? It seems that the 15th century British Parliament used blue velvet-covered books for record-keeping. But the books were presumably around even before then, dating to India, according to Wikipedia. The British Parliamentary Papers in the 19th century were commonly known as the Blue Books because blue paper was used as the cover on some of them.

household hints guide

Household hints to make life easier in the kitchen.

The blue book is pure and simple a guide – to just about everything. Fowler tried to pack as much as he could in the pages of his household book, arranging the tips by rooms in the house and dropping in a few recipes. He warned that he couldn’t vouch for each of the 1,500 tips in the book, but that they derived from “tried and true” methods.

The owner of this book apparently used it often; its cover was stained with grease and spots.

Here is a sampling of the suggestions:


A fine table mat for hot dishes can be made from the top of an old straw hat; the edge should be bound with tape.

If the cork breaks and fall inside of a bottle, put enough ammonia in the bottle to float the cork and put it away for a few days. The ammonia will either eat or destroy the cork enough to permit its removal.

To cool a dish of pudding or any hot food quickly, set it in a pan of cold water which has been well salted.

Onion for seasoning: Plant one or two sprouting onions in a pot of good mold and place on the kitchen window-sill; shoots soon appear which may be removed for flavoring soups, etc., and others soon take their place; the onions continue sprouting for a long time. Chives and parsley can also be grown in this way.

To keep flies out of the pantry, sponge the windows once or twice a week with a weak solution of carbolic acid and water.

To pare a pineapple easily, cut it into rings and peel each slice separately.


Protect the finger rings. When washing the hands, either at home or in a public place, first remove a hairpin from the hair, place all rings on it and replace it firmly in the hair again; then the rings will not be lost or left for someone else to pick up.

For clogged basins, mix a handful of soda with a handful of common salt and force it down the pipe; leave it for ½ hour, then rinse the pipe thoroughly with boiling water.

A good deodorizer is a bottle of lemon juice left uncorked in the bathroom.

household hints guide

How to stretch butter and other household hints in the kitchen.


Good and cheap sachet powder for bureau drawers, etc. Mix one-half ounce of lavender flowers with one-half teaspoon of powdered cloves.

If your alarm rings too loudly slip an elastic band around the bell to diminish the noise.

To destroy bedbugs, beat together some corrosive sublimate and white of egg; apply it frequently with a feather to both the bed and mattress. Another solution is two ounces of corrosive sublimate dissolved in a pint of water and a pint of alcohol. These solutions are poisonous and must be used carefully.

For cold beds, put several smooth layers of paper next to the springs before the mattress is put on and cold backs will be unknown.

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Even an ordinary hand dryer has a bit of history Mon, 12 Jun 2017 15:16:04 +0000 Related posts:
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I had washed my hands – as we all should – with soap from the dispenser and hot water in the auction-house restroom when I turned to my left and was faced with two choices:

Paper towels or a hot-air hand dryer.

The paper-towel dispenser was coal black in a modern style. The hand dryer looked ancient, with its laminated faux-wood grain label, chrome nozzle, plastic push-button and utilitarian beige paint. It fit in well with the tenor of a place where antiques and vintage were the sole reason for being.

The hand dryer was nothing like the sleek Dyson AirBlade dryer I use when I visit Wegmans way too much.

A photo adorns the wall next to a hand dryer in the auction-house restroom.

Its presumptive age got me to thinking about where it fit into the evolution of how we dry our hands after we wash them in a public restroom.

We all know that we should clean our hands with hot water and soap to help fight germs that lead to illnesses – to both us and our colleagues at work, families at home and friends wherever. We don’t have to be as fussy about it as the character Adrian Monk on the old TV show of the same name (he actually had compulsive-obsessive disorder or OCD), but we could learn from him.

How to best dry your hands is a matter of opinion and debate by both the makers of hand dryers and paper towels, both insisting that their way is the most healthy.

hand dryers

Xlerator hand dryer. Photo from

The process of using air to dry your hands has been around for almost a century. The first machine – called the electric towel – was invented in 1921 by three workers for the AirDry Corporation of Groton, NY. It was described in its 1922 patent as a drying apparatus for “delivering a blast of heated air for drying the face, hands or hair of a person, or for drying jewelry, metal parts, glassware, or other articles.” The machine was attached to a wall with a nozzle that could be moved around. It was operated by a foot pedal on the floor.

The dryers could be found in restrooms, barbershops and factories. They were loud and slow.

It wasn’t until around 1948/1949 that hand dryers became popular, when inventor George Clemens improved on the design. He built a company around the product, joined by other companies that saw the future in it. Decades later, the invention would see other improvements. The Excel Company released its Xlerator in 2002 that cut the amount of time the machines dried your hands but not the noise.

I don’t think any of the dryers have conquered the noise yet.

hand dryers

Which to choose? Paper towels or hand dryer?

The Mitsubishi Company of Japan invented a hand-dipping model that made it to the United States in 2005. The British company Dyson released its AirBlade two years later in this country. (The dryer in the auction-house restroom was a TEW hand dryer, made by a Taiwanese company.)

Hand dryers are not without their detractors and supporters. Two studies in the last five years have found that they spread more germs than paper towels.

In 2014, scientists at the University of Leeds in England found that bacteria counts were higher when drying with hand dryers as compared to paper towels. The study was funded by the European Tissue Symposium, which represents tissue-paper producers. A Dyson official called the research inaccurate. Others studies have reached the same conclusion.

hand dryers

Dyson AirBlade hand dryer.

A more recent study, in 2016, found that the Dyson AirBlade jet-air dryer spread more germs than the standard warm-air dryers and even more than paper towels. Again, Dyson – and others – disputed the results.

To be safe, the Cleveland Clinic recommends this regimen for cleaning and drying your hands: wet your hands with warm or cold water; turn off the tap; soap and lather your hands, wash back of hands, fingers and beneath nails; wash for 20 seconds as you sing “Happy Birthday”; rinse well under clean, running water, and dry with clean towel or air dry. Use hand sanitizers if nothing else is available.

After being so careful, though, how do you open the door with your clean hands? Grab a paper towel, of course.

hand dryers

Soap dispenser and paper-towel holder side by side in auction-house restroom.

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1950s dinette sets stir up childhood memories Wed, 07 Jun 2017 14:23:01 +0000 Related posts:
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There was nothing distinguishing about the two dinette sets – except their age, and the warm and homey memories they stored.

They were dinette sets from the 1950s, one with deep yellow upholstery and the other in beige. Each sat on sturdy chrome legs atop Formica-top tables among other sundry items at the auction house. They stood out from all that surrounded them, and silently beckoned auction-goers of a certain age to stand before them and reflect.

The yellow set showed its age a bit, but that didn’t matter. One man took photos to text to his wife. “Her family had one of these,” he explained.

1950s dinettes

Up-close view of dinette set with beige chairs.

Soon, the sets drew two women into their lair. “Don’t you remember these?” one said excitedly to the other. “Yes,” her friend answered. “We had red chairs.” (The table under the beige chairs did have red accents around the base.)

“We had yellow chairs,” the first woman said. They both remembered the chairs from their childhood.

That’s not surprising, because chrome dinette sets with Formica tops were the thing in the 1950s. Formica itself was durable, it cleaned easily, and it came in nifty colors. The material wasn’t used on household products, though, until around the 1950s. Its original use was industrial: Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac used it for car engine parts in the 1930s, and it was used for propellers and other products of war during World War II.

1950s dinettes

Dinette set with yellow chairs.

Then Formica found its way into people’s homes, in dinette sets made by a variety of companies including Acme, Arvin, Chromecraft and Daystrom. Companies flooded magazines designed for women with ads pushing their dinettes.

The dinettes came in many colors, some with inlaid designs in the tabletop. The chairs were upholstered in vinyl. Some of the tables also came with leafs, and others had a push button to raise or lower the table to store the leaf underneath.

These mid-century dinettes have become very popular in their original form or as retro furniture. One site noted that the white ones were not as popular unless they had designs in the tabletop. The site also offered suggestions on what to look for in the original dinettes.

What are your memories of dinette sets?

1950s dinettes

Full view of the dinette set with beige chairs.

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One man’s collection of walking canes & jogging sticks Mon, 05 Jun 2017 14:09:26 +0000 Related posts:
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That’s a rare one, the auctioneer said as I stooped to peek inside a glass case of what looked like miniature wands. He was motioning to a short walnut stick with silver end-pieces lying among others of its size in the case.

They were dwarfed by the horde of long walking canes spread out across tables and in a tall cabinet at the auction house. This one was no more than a foot long and certainly was made more for decoration than for use.

The auctioneer explained that this jogging stick was invented by Charles Barton of the Reed & Barton silver company, and it came with a story. Reed was out walking one day, he said, and came upon some dogs but had nothing to shoo them away. So he invented a small cane that he could easily carry and be used for that purpose.

walking canes

The 39-star flag cane with a ball and wooden case, from 1889.

On the wider end of the cane was an inscription that the auctioneer pointed out and read to me: Run for your life.

I wasn’t so sure if he was joking or not, so I Googled it. The stick wasn’t so rare; I found a number of them for sale on eBay and retail sites on the web (from $25 to $265). Most of the sellers were offering the same story as the auctioneer: That Charles E. Barton was out running one morning when he came upon some dogs. He invented the jogging stick to use against threatening dogs. The sticks were said to have been manufactured for only a few years and are now collectible. They even came in their own velour case.

I suspect that the story may be more myth than reality. I could find no official reference to it. The company was founded in 1824 under other owners, and Barton and Henry G. Reed bought it a decade later. Barton died in 1867.

walking canes

The walnut Reed & Barton jogging stick with the silver caps is in the center.

At the auction house, the auctioneer also pointed out a 39-star flag that could be rolled around a cylinder and hidden inside a jogging stick. It could be removed from the stick and unfurled to wave during special patriotic events.

It, too, came with a story. According to the auction description, it was a “rare” 19th century 39-star US flag cane with a ball handle and a place to hide the 1889 flag. “The 39 star flag is one of the few unofficial flags made for the United States, flag makers ‘Jumped the Gun’ on the Dakotas coming into the Union as (1) state, instead 5 states were admitted and the 39-star flag not only was unofficial, but obsolete.”

This was actually true. Flag-makers did create a 39-star flag assuming that North and South Dakota would come into the union as one, and several other states would delay their coming in until July 4, 1889. The two Dakotas, Washington and Montana came on board in November and Idaho the following year.

walking canes

Walking canes give a nod to a former president.

It is not an official U.S. flag, but it is said to be a collector’s item. One site noted that the unofficial 40-star flag from 1889 is much more scarce because fewer were made.

At auction, the jogging stick sold for $70, and the star flag for $38.

As for the canes, they were part of one man’s collection. Here’s a sampling:

walking canes

Cane handles head to head.


walking canes

The claw and glass ball and magnifying glass were once used for other purposes.


walking canes

Pine cones and more.


walking canes

An array of canes.


walking canes

Silver-plated handles with devilish intentions.


walking canes

Walking canes with unusual handles.


walking canes

The cane at atop has a hidden secret. The bone handles on the bottom give them an impressive air.


walking canes

A display of canes with a variety of handes.


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Civil War letters from soldier to his son back home Wed, 31 May 2017 16:29:07 +0000 Related posts:
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When I saw the two orange absentee-bid stickers attached to the box of faded letters, I instantly asked the auction staffer to see them. I figured if two people wanted the letters, there must be something interesting about them.

And there was: They were the letters from a Civil War soldier. Some were still in their envelopes with the torn ends while others had no envelopes and were still folded – all strewn inside the bottom half of a cardboard box.

I’m always eager to read about soldiers’ tales of the tedium, pain, fear and loneliness of war, along with their experiences of the new and unfamiliar places where they were fighting. The war letters I’d come across at auction were just that type: One was from an African American Civil War soldier to his wife in Connecticut. Another was from a World War II doctor who told of his encounters, the most horrific of which was a Nazi concentration camp.

civil war letters

A box of Civil War letters from a father to his son.

I expected this group of letters to be like those of the black soldier who fought on American soil. As I started to read the letters, I was confused because they were different. I realized that these were not letters from adult to adult; they were from father to son. They did not contain the tragedy of war but the love of a parent.

They were sent by a man named James Touchstone to his teenage son James Monroe, whom he addressed as “Mr.” on the envelope. The family lived in Port Deposit, Cecil County, MD, and the father was a blacksmith before he joined the Union Army. He was a first lieutenant quartermaster in the 6th Regiment of the Maryland Infantry. Touchstone left a wife and 12 children behind.

In 1863, he became ill during a retreat of Union forces from Berryville, VA, when he and other exhausted troops spent days exposed to harsh weather, according to war documents. He was honorably discharged in October 1864, and his personal physician said in an affidavit that he never fully recovered from that experience. He died in 1872 at age 51.

civil war letters

Civil War letter from James Touchstone to his son, dated August 1864.

His obituary in the local newspaper noted that he was a Union man at the beginning of the war but grew to become a conservative and Democrat (whose beliefs back then were more the Republican way of thinking today). He served two terms in the Maryland Legislature in the 1870s.

Touchstone gained a reputation as a “slashing political writer,” the obituary said, and his views were “governed more by the strength of his prejudices than reason.”

He was very outspoken in his political beliefs, and wrote letters and commentary about them, including a letter to his son. He seemed to have been a member of the Copperheads, a group of Northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War, and wanted to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the southern secessionist states to end the war, and bring them and slavery back into the union. The group opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

During the 1864 election, Touchstone supported Gen. George McClellan over President Lincoln for the presidency.

civil war letter

Civil War letter from James Touchstone to his son, dated October 1863.

Here are excerpts from letters to “My Dear Son,” who was born in 1846:

Officers Division Hospital, Annapolis, MD, Aug. 31, 1864:

“Last winter you promised me you wanted go to school every day and that you wanted to attend church. Have you done it? I have not been anxious for you to work but I have been anxious for you to learn. So that you might be an honor to your parents and yourself, and a useful man.

“I am sorry to hear you say that your ‘future is a blank.’ How can you say this? What is there to cause you to say this? My dear boy this is not the proper view to take of things. You are too young to despond in this way, and you must not do it. There are many young men like you who have no kind father or dear and loving mother to care for them, who go forth to battle with the world in confidence. You must know that you have many advantages in this respect and you must resolve that you will, God being you helper, do your part.”

Culpepper, VA, Oct. 6, 1863:

“I am not surprised that I am called a ‘Copperhead’ by the ‘Codfish’ or ‘Stink pot’ party. I disregard them as the dirt. They may say and do as they please but cannot disturb my equilibrium. … You are right in supposing that Linc will buy votes. He loves his money as his God but he will even sell his God to be elected, thinking to get him back with interest. And by the use of his money he may succeed in defeating Mc.”

Bolivar Heights, Jany. 10, 1862:

civil war letter

Civil War letter from James Touchstone to his teenage son, dated January 1862.

“I am surrounded by mountains and storms this morning. Everything looks wild but enchanting. The mountain crags and peaks are hidden from view by the snowstorm that envelopes them and down their steep and rugged sides sweep the whirling gusts of what may really be called ‘a stormy day in winter.’ From the back window of my chamber I see the Potomac as it comes down from the Northwest, winding its way through the mountain gorges, struggling as it were, to be forced from the frozen embrace of the Ice-clad hills above. … From my window I see the beautiful, though romantic Shenandoah, stealing quietly down the rugged sides of the Londen (London Heights) and Bolivar seeming unconscious that it is just lost forever (and swallowed up) in the angry waters of the Potomac.

“And why does ‘Mam.’ not write me a sweet letter with her own hand? She used to write me sweet letters when Siss and you were babies but since you have learned to write she has given it up. I love to have a letter from any of my dear children but I would give anything for just a few simple words from my own dear wife – your dear mother. … Perhaps she forgets the love letters she used to write me. Oh how sweet they were! Well a ‘love letter’ from ‘Mam.’ after my long absence, would be sweeter than ever.”



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‘Gone Fishin’ watercolor reminds me of my uncle Wed, 24 May 2017 14:59:47 +0000 Related posts:
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From as far back as I can remember, my uncle Arthur Lee has loved to go fishing. He’s a Southerner, and fishing in any creek or private pond or lake that was home to fish was in his blood.

He started fishing (and hunting) as a young man, taking his fishing pole to a creek in back of the family’s home. He would eventually find a better place that would remain his favorite spot into adulthood. His wife Dora Mae would go with him sometimes, but he mostly brought his catch home to her to clean and cook.

“As fast as I’d catch them, she’d eat them,” he says. “I’ll clean them all day as long as he catch them,” she adds.

fishing watercolor

Up-close view of the fishing watercolor.

She loved fried fish so much that once, she told me and some family members between chuckles, he brought a friend over to see the fish he’d caught that day, and they were gone. She had cleaned, cooked and eaten them.

I thought of my uncle recently when I saw a picture of a waiting-to-be-sold painting on an auction-house website. When the day came for the auction I eagerly sought out the painting. It was a watercolor of an old man in a straw hat sitting on a dock with a fishing pole in the water and a bucket of bait near his feet. That’s exactly how I pictured my uncle. I could not decipher the artist’s name in the lower left corner, but did see that the watercolor was painted in 1975.

For some people, fishing is as much an American pastime as baseball. I know that’s true in the South. I’ve even seen folks alongside bridges in Florida, their fishing rods over the side, them ignoring us drivers and the danger we posed to them standing or sitting so close to the highway.

In 2016, the Outdoor Industry Association cited fishing as the second most popular American pastime behind jogging for people over 25 years of age, and the fourth among those who were younger. Even people who wanted to be more active said fishing was among their top 10 choices.

full view fishing watercolor

A full view of the fishing watercolor.

Fishing has a history that dates back thousands of years, providing a bustling economy for some areas, and food and pleasure for many people. The beauty of fishing is its simplicity. You don’t need much to fish: a pole, some bait, a natural body of water, time and patience.

It has been a favorite sport of many of the country’s presidents: George Washington dropped his pole into the Potomac River near where he lived in Mount Vernon, VA. Jimmy Carter fished in a lake near his home in Plains, GA, where he once encountered a swamp rabbit. Franklin D. Roosevelt took fishing trips for his health. Grover Cleveland and Herbert Hoover wrote books about it nearly 60 years apart.

Ernest Hemingway was also an avid fisherman. His novel “The Old Man and the Sea” was said to have been inspired by the endless struggle to get his catch into the boat before the sharks got to it. It was first printed in Life magazine in 1952 before it was published as a book.

Roosevelt fishing

President Roosevelt on a fishing trip. Photo from the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

I understand the love and lure of fishing – when you get past getting up so early in the morning when folks swear the fish are more likely to bite. It seems so relaxing, stripping away the daily grind – just Mother Nature, you and the fish in a cat-and-mouse game.

There’s also a bond among fishermen and fisherwomen (just as there are among us auction-goers), because you all end up at the same fishing spot on the same days. My uncle would take his spinning reel and buckets of bait and minnows to his favorite spot. At one point, he went with a female neighbor who lived just behind him. Once, at a holiday meal, my aunt needled him about her, saying that she suspected that the woman was sweet on him. I suspect that she was just a good fishing partner, and my aunt knew that, too.

I don’t recall ever going fishing, but I’m sure I have often mentioned to my uncle that I’d like to join him (because of health reasons, he no longer goes fishing). I’m not sure if I have the patience, though, to sit out there in the hot sun waiting for fish to bite. My uncle, the old man in the watercolor and millions of others don’t seem to mind.

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Things that make me go “Wow!” and “Huh?” Mon, 22 May 2017 12:04:47 +0000 Related posts:
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Most of the time when I’m previewing items at auction – usually in the hour before the action starts – I amble through the aisles, stopping at a table here and there, picking up stuff or just moving one thing out of the way so I can get to another.

Sometimes, though, an item catches my eye, and I have no choice but to stop and examine it. That has happened to me quite a few times lately – the shape, the color, the whimsical nature of an item or its identity took hold of me.

And then I linger.

Today, I’d like to share with you some of the items I have come across lately at auction that were just plain lovely or were so mysterious and confounding that I had to find out what they were. See if you can figure out what effect each of these had on me: “Wow!” or “Huh?”

How would you characterize them? Wow! or Huh?

zenith cobra-matic record player

1950s Zenith Cobra-Matic record player and radio. Note the tone arm, whose narrow end resembles the head of a snake, complete with tiny grooved eyes on each side. The bar that holds the records on the spindle widens at the end to resemble a cobra getting ready to strike. The phonograph is made of beautiful Bakelite.


wooden hat press

Wooden hat brim press. I’ve seen wooden blocks in the shape of a hat but never anything that held a hat. This press apparently helped a flat brim hat to keep its form. Someone liked it well enough to leave an absentee bid (the green sticker).


cake carrier

I had no idea what this was, and then I opened it and found what looked like a matching metal cake knife. The container is too flat for a layer cake but could work with a large flat cake or some other baked item that needed cutting.


horse whip holder

I had no idea what this was, either, until I read the tag: Horse whip holder.


pedal police car

Vintage black and white police pedal car.


pedal race car

Classic ride-on red race car.


wooden old west sheriff

Wooden painted Old West sheriff. Usually, I only see carved wooden statues of cigar-store Native Americans.


coal heater

When I saw this heater with all of its details, I thought of some fancy apartment or home, not a commoner’s house. This Bonnie Sunshine double heater was made by the Reading (PA) Stove Works in the late 1890s. It was one of several heaters described in a trade magazine back then as “beautifully presented to the eye.”


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