Discover Vintage America - AUGUST 2017
When the icons of a generation fade
Much has been written about the challenges aging collectors face in knowing what to do with their collections – especially when their kids don't want them. A more hidden aspect of this challenge is that each generation has its cultural icons that are unique to its time. Culturally emblematic persons, places, and things have generated their own collectibles that future buyers may have trouble relating to.
So iconic was the image of New Hampshire's natural rock formation known to generations as "The Old Man of the Mountain" that it appeared on coin and stamp as well as in countless other collectible forms. When these state quarters came out, collectors made it a point to collect all 50. But aside from coin collectors, what will future secondary market shoppers make of such images of The Old Man now that he no longer exists "in the wild?" For future secondary market shoppers, will those images be compelling enough to stand in for the absence of the original icon?
In my childhood, I knew about people such as Shirley Temple, Charlie Chaplin, and the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans duo from old movies that were still playing on television and that we kids watched with our parents, for whom such figures were beloved and, therefore, became beloved to us kids in turn. Today, family TV watching has become as rare as family meal times.
Annie Oakley was my hero when I was five or six. I vividly remember my mother trying to get me to go outside on a hot summer day wearing just my Annie Oakley skirt outfit without a blouse or shirt under the vest. My mom insisted, "Annie Oakley goes out like that all the time!"
My siblings and I devoured "Little Rascals" (AKA "Our Gang") re-runs. We never missed an episode of the 50s-era TV version of "The Lone Ranger." I adored the dog Lassie and the horse Fury, though my brother was less enamored. "Who wants to watch Lassie?" he griped one day, in that age of one TV per household when he wanted to watch a competing program. "All she does is jump over logs!"
I was keenly and shockingly disappointed when I was about 8 or 10 and tearfully objecting to my discovery that Shirley Temple was not a kid my age but already grown up. ("I thought you knew that!" my mother said in amazed amusement at my rude awakening.) I grew up in the warm glow of John and Jackie's Camelot, and every once in awhile, have a "rude awakening déjà vu" when I'm struck that there are fewer and fewer of us left who were alive when they were.
The culture heroes of my youth are largely unknown to my nieces and nephews beyond a vague familiarity with the names. They have grown up with their own generational icons from movies and television, sports and culture – and some day may face the same dilemma that now faces me as both a collector and a dealer.
Not all time-bound collectibles come from pop culture or media, either. An example I can think of from my own experience was the beloved image of the "Old Man of the Mountain" in northern New Hampshire, the state where I grew up. This natural geologic feature showed the profile of a man's face jutting out from a mountain cliff side. In 2003, the structure broke off its cliff and tumbled down, done in by rain and wind and the constant freezing and thawing of New England winters.
For some years thereafter, there was a run on memorabilia containing the Old Man's image. Like so many collecting phenomena, this one was driven by the nostalgia of people from all over the country who had actually seen the rock formation in situ. But the unusual natural structure was far more compelling "in the wild" than it is in any of the myriad artistic renderings of it; 25 years from now, will anyone even know what to make of all these manmade representations of such a unique but no longer extant natural rock formation?
What all this means to dealers is that we'll need to focus on the inherent quality appeal of the inventory we acquire when it comes to items that reference what are (today at least!) famous people, places, and things. Plastic and pot metal and souvenir kitsch just ain't gonna cut it.
Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector (and now dealer) living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.