Friday, February 07, 2014

Context(s) May Not Be Everything, But it is Important

Danny is starting to understand that his parents are old. Oh, he's had clues along the way, given his dad's enthusiasm for cashing in on any and all senior discounts, or the way we get misty eyed at the mention of transistor radios and LP records. Most of our contemporaries have grandchildren Danny's age, and I've been called, "Grandma" by well meaning people more times than I can keep track of. Still, it is only recently that he's really connected his parents being of a distinctly different time.

I was the youngest child in my family, including cousins-by many, many years. I don't remember feeling that my parents were ancient, perhaps because we had so many great, great aunts that truly were. They didn't live, "like Victorians", they were Victorians. I adored the aunts, visiting their place was like stepping into a museum, and they always sent me home with some odd paperweight, or tin toy, or relic they'd managed to keep long after it had any use (a stack of ink blotters comes to mind). They were old. Their mother, my great grandmother, was old. My parents? They seemed modern enough to me. We always had the newest gadgets, hi-fi's, electric typewriters, electric hair rollers. I don't recall ever hearing my parents pine for fountain pens, crank automobiles, or button-up boots. They got on with the new technology just fine, embraced it whole heartedly, and cringed each time I brought a used book home because they could afford to purchase new ones for me. Obviously, the vintage clothing had to be brought in carefully to avoid notice. My mother hated antiques, and was less than pleased with the treasures I'd bring home from visits to elderly relatives. I lost count how many times she tried getting rid of my aunt's desk, given to me with the condition I would keep it after I moved away from home. I did, and today it is in Danny's room though the chair is a bit too fragile for use by a careless nine year old boy.

My parents were older when I was born, but as my mother died at 56, it hardly registers that she was of another era. I don't think she was capable of nostalgia, and on the rare occasions when she spoke of the past, it was with a sense of relief that all that was over. She was probably glad the rationing was done with. I suppose even if you didn't want something, just knowing you could have it would have been a relief.

Now that our son has noted how old his parents are, he's interested to know about our lives way back in the stone age before paved roads and the Internet. We must seem like quite rare specimens preserved by synthetic foodstuffs (mostly Jell-O and Cool Whip if I'm being honest) who were alive before the moon landing. The thing is, they weren't the greatest of times. No, I personally didn't want for anything, and most days I didn't really believe the Soviets were going to nuke us, but there were riots in the streets, planes being hijacked to Cuba, and the Manson crazies killing people. That's the background to my childhood. Sure, it pales in comparison to what my parents had to grow up with, but it isn't like I get nostalgic for the "good old days" of cops beating the hell out of unarmed hippies, or Mayor Daley issuing, "shoot to kill" orders.  We've managed to edit Vietnam out of our contemporary depiction of the 60's and early 70's, or change the narrative so that it starts sounding like we (the Americans) won . Fire-bombing churches, turning dogs and hoses on peaceful demonstrators, the assassinations-god, what's there to be nostalgic for?  I may enjoy my vintage clothing, but I really didn't enjoy  the times from which they sprang- and I wouldn't want to re-live them. This isn't a vintage lifestyle blog.

I'm starting to understand my mother's reluctance to discuss the past. It is easy enough to look at current news and feel doomed-I mean, who wouldn't? Still, I don't want to convey the idea to Danny that we were any less doomed fifty years ago. Or Seventy- Five years ago. Or Two- hundred years ago. Every generation must feel doomed at some point. What a wonder we go on at all.

I've been trying to find a way to articulate this fear I have that displaying vintage clothing on my blog is somehow putting forth a better impression of the past than it deserves. You had Woodstock, but then you had Altamont. In one form or another, people have been cruel, violent shits throughout recorded history, and I don't have any reason to believe this will ever be otherwise.

I guess what I'm getting at is I need to do a better job of explaining the vintage clothing/cooking/housewares in the proper context, rather than simply displaying them as pretty items that exist in a vacuum. Obviously, people have been turning history into a commodity since the first pilgrimage when every local suddenly had a bit something to sell for the reliquaries back home. Antique stores aren't a new phenomenon. What I can't quite put my finger on is what bothers me about Ebay, and Etsy, and similar sites. There's something slick and sanitised about the way the pieces are marketed that makes everything seem like one more click in an endless stream of clicks. Unique items, but very much a production line experience? I recently saw a bit of WWI trench art in the form of a sweetheart bracelet for sale with the description, "A great gift for Valentine's!" Well no, it isn't. You couldn't possibly strip an item of more meaning. Presenting your sweetheart with an antique you bought on the Internet isn't the same as fashioning it out of scrap at the front whilst trying to avoid being gassed. I feel strongly that these things should be purchased, and preserved, but not by re-writing the origin. It would be a lovely, meaningful gift from someone, to someone that understood what it was. It breaks my heart to see these things, held and cherished for so many years end up dumped at a yard sale, or in a thrift shop because the person left with the task of clearing out the deceased's belongings didn't know what it was. I'm sure a good number of those boys never came home to their sweethearts. I don't know, a hundred years on maybe that's just what happens. My mother had a cousin who was gassed in the war. I barely remember him as an old man, but I remember he knit to calm himself.  God knows, I never asked about the war, but it must have been horrific. I imagine he must have knit a department store's worth of items by the time I knew him in the 60's and 70's. It isn't that much of a stretch to imagine hammering out a sweetheart bracelet as a way to focus on something-anything else.

I wish I could say I have some tidy answer to somewhat messy issues. I don't of course. I'm as guilty as anyone else of watching a movie and thinking, "I need a snood!" Am I making history into a commodity? I don't know. Really, I don't. I'm sure there's a line somewhere, between appreciating items, and cheapening them-I won't claim to know where it is.

Something to think about, anyway.


Janice said...

Our worlds hold a similarity once again. Today, I got the greatest review from a customer who purchased a truly one of a kind unique item from me. A lamp and lampshade which was hand beaded by Eskimos and presented to Admiral Peary during his expeditions to the Arctic. I was lucky enough to purchase the lamp with the appraisal papers, and certified information signed by the grandson of Admiral Peary. Complete with the seal of a Notary. It had not been preserved with the respect it deserved. Once it became mine, I did my best to keep care of it. Behold... the great great grand daughter of Admiral Peary came across my listing and purchased it for her father as a gift. It's my understanding that many of Admiral Peary's exploration items were given to a museum that did not take care of the items and many were moldy and basically ruined. In some small way it is a surreal experience to know this particular item found it's way home. No, the good old days were not always good. But, we had them. Finding a sense of belonging and nostalgia with objects doesn't indicate glory days. Sometimes they are talismans of sorts.

Goody said...

What a great story.

I guess I find it hard to step back from these items. Obviously, you do as well, but I think that it is far from universal.

When I was in the antique business years ago, I stuck to selling things I didn't like, and felt no attachment to. Thankfully, Depression glass and Wallace Nutting artwork was easy to unload in Boston ;) I only got into trouble when I started buying Civil War era clothing/textiles because I gave them more respect than the market determined they deserved at the time.

I don't know, as I said, I'm not sure there's a good answer other than trying to avoid crass commercialism, and maybe being a bit more sensitive of the items I wear/post. It would certainly be easier if I thought of it all as, "old junk."

I hope you don't feel this post was in any way aimed at you as a dealer-it is (as most of my rants are) all about me.

pastcaring said...

Hmmm. I don't know either. I don't consider that enjoying vintage clothing or homewares is necessarily the same as a rose-tinted longing to actually live in the era from which they come. I don't feel that, anyway, and it has never occurred to me to be a vintage lifestyle/re-enacter; the kids wouldn't stand for that! I like history, and memories, and feel nostalgic for some things, but have no desire to live in the past.

I suppose much of the production line selling of antiques/vintage depends on fashion, what the market dictates is in or out, and therefore its allotted value changes over time. All those kitschy 1960-70s prints and homewares which no one would give houseroom to in the 80s are now highly collectible and go for big money. Ebay is full of inaccurate descriptions using vintage and retro and various era signifiers to add desirability and dollars.

I like the stories and history connected with some of the things I buy, I like the one-off nature of most of my wardrobe, I like recycling and preserving, and buying cheaply too. And I buy what I love, not what that current trends try to dictate I should have. I am not sure what motivates other buyers of vintage, but that's where I am.
PS. I am old too, old enough to be the mother of some of my kids' friends' parents. My other half has been mistaken for their grandad a few times. Oh well, what can you do?! xxx

Goody said...

I really appreciate your opinions on this. I have a hard time with this, but if I keep acquiring stuff at the rate I have been, I'll need to sell some. I don't think it is polite to question someone's motives for a purchase (I mean, we're talking vintage clothing, not weapons)and it certainly isn't good business. I wouldn't do well in marketing.

Again, I don't want to give the impression I think online sellers are horrible people (well, deliberately misrepresenting stuff is horrible)but that there is something about the medium of on-line commerce that makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes.

I tend to over-think stuff.

Janice said...

I would love to say that my only motivation for online retail is some fabulous effort to protect the world or some noble cause. Although that is part of the rewards, my main motivation is income. We have sold and shipped tens of thousands of items over the years. It pays the bills and allows me to earn way more money than I ever would working for someone else and helping them get rich off my hours of hard labor. I wanted to be home with my kids initially. Then it became a way of connecting with people. I have had the pleasure of meeting many of our customers in person and have grown to really enjoy this part of the business.
Then there is the thrill of the hunt. To find the items that have been tossed aside and unloved and put them out there for someone who really would love to have them. So many customers write and say how happy they are to find this or that because it reminds them of a person or a time period in their life that they cherish.
I personally connect with vintage items because of the quality in their construction and the care taken in their manufacturing.
Our home is primarily vintage decor. Not in a cheap knock off of vintage sort of way. There is nothing worse than cheaply manufactured new items made to look like a vintage item.
The world is full of people who will gladly max out their credit cards out on a bunch of fiberboard furniture and plastic junk that won't survive as long as their payments will.
One thing I have never really done is to mix my worlds and link my blog to our online stores.
Some how that just feels as if my blog would lose credibility. The blogging part of my online "persona" is spared the machine of commerce.

Goody said...

Linking the blog? I don't know, again, like most things it would depend how it was done.

I don't want to give the impression I don't shop online-because I do, and I buy vintage items.

I guess I'm personally grappling with this because I don't know where the line is-for me. I do appreciate hearing your experience with it, though I must say, this is far too polite a conversation for the Internet! You should call me a Nazi or a tosser or something before we give people the impression grown ups can discuss complicated stuff in a comment thread.

It IS complicated stuff, without neat, easy solutions. I value being able to talk about them with you guys.