Friday, May 29, 2009

Estate Sale Adventures

I'll be honest, despite my love of Collectorating Estate Sales are really difficult for me. It's definitely a quandary for me because I love old stuff, and I know the best old stuff comes from Estate Sales, but I am 9 times out of 10 more willing to pay the middle man to go retrieve it from the sale so I don't have to go myself. I have a really hard time watching people pawing over someone's stuff that is splayed out all over a table, stuff that they had meticulously collected and stored away their entire lives. It's particularly difficult for me when stuff is still where it more or less was in the house and people are stepping all over stuff, pulling and shoving, and generally grabbing up items without even trying to keep like things together. Maybe it's because I imagine this scenario happening to the things I worked so hard to collect all these years. I really wouldn't mind it if I knew my collections were going to someone who would appreciate the effort it took to find all of these things, and who would take care of them for me, but just going to someone who is going to carelessly break sets apart just to make a few bucks sickens me.

I fully realize that this is the scenario I am facing when I go Collectorating in retail stores. Likely all the good stuff came from such situations, but I guess when I am not witnessing it happening it's easier to take. And I should be clear, I am not against honest people making an honest living, but it’s hard for me to go to these sales and watch everything being snapped up in a rush without much of a glance and admiration for this person’s life and things, just to turn a profit. I owe at least 90% of my collection to dealers who tirelessly get up at the crack of dawn every weekend to go to these estate sales, but I guess I want to believe that most of these people truly appreciate what they find and consider themselves conduits to get the stuff to people who will love and value it.
So for these reasons I try to get out of going to Estate Sales as often as possible much to CollectoratorOne's chagrin. I am trying to be better about it because my Collectorator sensibilities know the value in going, and I have extra time right now, but it's not easy for me by any means. Both CollectoratorOne and my boy have said to me one time or the other that I should just think of it as we are doing our part to preserve some small part of what the person had worked so hard to keep in their lives and to keep the dealers and hoarders from just snapping it all up carelessly out of greed. Regardless of going into it with that in purpose in mind, today's estate sale was a perfect example of what I dislike about Estate Sales, but I think I had an epiphany today on how to make it ok in myself to continue to go....

The lady's house we visited today, Mary, was the most organized pack rat I have ever seen, and I know pack ratness when I see it as I am a confessed pack rat myself. Not the kind where you keep random crap, but the kind where you obsessively collect many examples of the same kind of thing (see my flickr site for evidence of my pack ratness). In any case, this lady was a very organized pack rat. She probably had about 50 scarves and 100 hankies but they were organized together by color in old hosiery boxes that were labeled with what was in them and what dresses they went with. It's organization like hers that I aspire to have! And as I was realizing this amazing quality of this person, I was watching the dealers scrambling to grab all those dresses that were written on the labels of those boxes right of the racks without even looking at them, just for a profit. All I could think is don't you want the scarf or hat that is specifically labeled to go with that dress???? So there I was on the floor with the little labeled boxes of scarves caught in my usual Estate Sale maelstrom. I almost had to leave... BUT I moved my focus away from the dealers pulling and stacking and focused in on the large collection of purses. I was certain that the innocent purses also went with the dresses that were being whisked away, so I compulsively found one to grab onto so I could maybe salvage some small piece of Mary's life and incredible fashion sense that was being destroyed right in front of me.

I thought rescuing that one purse might be all I could do, so I wondered out of the room to maybe just go outside for awhile but on my way out I saw a sewing room and I went in there, no one was really in there so it was quiet and I regained my focus and went through the patterns. Sewing has certainly saved me more than one time in my life. Mary had some fun patterns and she obviously liked to sew. It seems maybe that she didn't really start sewing much until the late 50s from what I could tell from her sewing collection. Most of the patterns, notions, and general things were from the 60s, which I admire but do not collect. She had two sewing machines, one from the 1960s and another from the 1930s, which I surmise was probably from her family or childhood. In the pattern collection I found a cool Vogue pattern to make a fur stole. I have never seen such a pattern before. So I held on to that hoping I might find the stole she made somewhere in the house. I never did, but she obviously made everything she had a pattern for as they were all used and the little pieces were all tied together carefully with thread as to not lose a loose piece later.

While I was regaining my composure, CollectoratorOne rummaged through the rest of the clothes, looking for anything that maybe the dealers didn't find and stashed away a few for us to look at later. She eventually joined me in the sewing room and focused in on the nightgowns. This lady was like me, she had tons of nightgowns. I overheard someone say why would you need so many bed jackets and all I could think is that they go with all the different nightgowns that's why! I let CollectoratorOne look through those for us and I focused in on the gloves because I am having a real glove obsession lately. They were mostly plain which was somewhat disappointing, she had all this flair in her hats and scarves I thought for sure the gloves would be good. I singled out the only unique pair in the box, white with red polka dots...and again all I could think was there was probably a smashing white dress that these gloves went with that those dealers grabbed and took away without its matching gloves. Luckily for the gloves, Mary's fashion legacy, and myself I have a really cute white pique dress with red polka dots that they will be fun with....

We wondered into the bathroom next, which was cute - it had green and white tile and double vanity areas with really cute gold star printed light fixtures. I salvaged a little blue kleenex holder that CollectoratorOne has a matching one of in pink. CollectoratorOne found this amazing set of sheets and pillowcases still in their original box. It’s funny because it’s this common design that we both have pillowcases already in but CollectoratorOne had just been talking about wanting a sheet set that went with the pillowcases too and lo and behold there they were! The box they were in was so beautiful that it brought up a discussion about the lack of quality in packaging these days. CollectoratorOne thinks that the extra effort put into packaging back then as well as the general esthetic detail in most everything vintage is the reason we are attracted to things from the past. I definitely agree. It’s like marketers and manufacturers were all trying just a little bit harder to sell that product to you. Maybe they had to. People may have just been a little less willing to part with their money than they are now. It just seems like today you go to a store and buy something and it comes in a crappy plastic package that you can in no way save. Looking at this lady’s life, all of her collections were tucked away in all of these fabulous old boxes from stores or just from buying a pair of nylons…. Something just seems so wrong about how it’s done now. As CollectoratorOne pointed out, now you have to go to a store to buy a boring plain plastic box to organize your collections into.

We wandered through the rest of the house doing an overview of what we might want to go back and look through more later. The house itself was nice, it was built in 1960 and still retained the majority of its 1960-ness. The carpet was newer, but most of her furniture and decorations went with the 1960s era. There were three main rooms, a very large den with all her books, a smaller “formal” living room and a dining room with a sitting area attached. Her Hifi was over in that area so I was envisioning all the dinner parties she might have thrown. Mary seemed prone to having parties as she had tons of glass serving dishes and boxes of very organized table cloths. I saw myself in so much of her things in both the amount and kind of things she had. The kitchen was small but long. It had an area for a kitchen table with a pull down light fixture and a laundry room (all laundry rooms should be in the kitchen!). The kitchen itself was right out of 1960. The original turquoise Hotpoint Wall oven, the contrasting yellowish/beige cabinetry, and the counters... they were the most amazing I have seen. They had seen better days but nevertheless I wanted to take the Formica right out of there and home with me! It was white with blue stars. So amazing. Her kitchen stuff in general wasn't anything that we really wanted but like us that girl loved glasses. Mary had a ton of glasses. She also had the Fire King tulip mixing bowls I've always wanted to collect, and many of the Pyrex things I do collect. It's so weird to see yourself in someone else's collection of stuff. We looked through the tablecloths and CollectoratorOne got some killer placemats in her favorite combination of green colors: chartreuse and dark green with leaves on them. How perfect is that. =)

We spent a good deal of time in the den with her books, and that's where I had my epiphany that maybe will make future estate sales easier to take. We were kind of piecing things together about her throughout the morning. I had heard someone say she was a single lady in answer to where the men's clothes were. So that spurred me on to want to know more about this wonderfully organized lady and I realized that maybe if I just learn about Mary through her stuff it will be ok to take her stuff and preserve it as long as I can. You can really tell a lot about a person through their collection of books, and Mary hardly had any pleasure books at all. They were mostly all old Marketing, Advertising and Business books from the 1940s and 1950s. Our first thought was that perhaps she had a husband who had died long ago, and that these books were somehow related to whatever business endeavor he had been in, but as we looked through book after book it was HER name that was inscribed in the front of each! It was then that we realized she had never been married after all. All those business-related books were all proudly sporting her name, not some man's name. She had a lot of these books, and she had kept them for a very long time, which told us that not only had she had educated herself well but she took huge pride in that education. Given the era the books were from, it definitely is something she had every right to be proud of.

Based on the books it didn't seem like she had a lot of other hobbies than sewing. For instance, she only had about 4 cookbooks one of which was one of those community cookbooks which I snapped up. She had several decorating books though so you can tell she put a lot of thought into how her house looked. She had them from all eras, 40s and on. She had some gardening books and some game books one of which was from 1938 that I took home with me. The Complete Book of Games... how fun! I discovered through some loose leaf paper in the game book that verified she probably liked to have parties. There were several sheets of paper with lists of games to play like other people might make to decide what food to serve at the party.

We discovered she graduated from high school in 1938 based on a pamphlet we found. There were also several old memento-type things within the house that she had kept from her sister indicating she was close to her sister. In the graduation pamphlet her name was listed with another similar name so maybe they were twin sisters. It wouldn't be unheard of to have sisters graduate at the same time in the 1930s that were different ages, but I am going to just believe they were twins. It's a better story. CollectoratorOne found an interesting datebook she had kept in 1953. Mary was a Lieutenant in the Air Force at that point! I had seen a hat earlier in the day that was definitely an Air Force hat, but other than that there wasn't a large military presence in the house. The datebook was strange. It was almost like it was documenting the bad things that were going on with her in the Air Force. The entries said things like so and so stabbed me in the back... or so and so was responsible for such and such thing happening. They were very specific with full names and dates, which made it seem more like a documentation of facts than just casual notations. We decided maybe she didn't have a very good time in the Air Force. I am sure being a woman in the Air Force, not to mention a woman Lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1953 was probably not the easiest thing to do. As we first were reading some of the things she had written down we thought she must have been paranoid and had a “the world is against me” syndrome, but then we realized that given she was a female Lieutenant in the Air Force in the early 1950s … everyone WAS probably against her! CollectoratorOne said, and I agree, that it is difficult to imagine being in that position where everyone was trying to conspire to push you out likely just because you were a woman in a man’s world. I hope she stayed…

Mary went to New Orleans in 1958 and saved her plane ticket and her receipt from the hotel she stayed in. Maybe just a mark of a pack rat, but I also think she was probably pretty excited or really wanted to remember the trip for some reason. Maybe she just liked to travel. She went to come college classes in 1960s, and maybe some college before the 1960s as well but we are not sure. All of those Marketing books were from the 40s and 50s so either she was continually learning or she had several rounds of education. She wasn't in any of the local college yearbooks I have from the 1940s but I believe her sister was. So who knows, maybe she just came to live here with her sister or maybe she was stationed here for the Air Force and then just stayed. Our current airport used to be an Air Force base, so that is highly possible.

All I know is I developed a huge respect for her after looking through those items. Here was this tremendously independent woman at one of the hardest times to be an independent woman who made herself into what she was and acquired this fabulous house and all its obsessions and obviously led a fun life all on her own. It was very inspiring. I guess I once again saw myself in that picture I was painting of her while looking through her belongings. I think it was that combination of piecing together things about her life and seeing myself in her life that made it ok for me to take things from her house. And it's not just things I found on a shelf in an antique store, it's her things. I have little bits of different aspects of her life now, and I will always know they are hers and tell everyone about this fabulous woman I found out about today through those things.

We did at some point finally go through the few nightgowns and clothes CollectoratorOne had picked up for us to look at, and we both got a nightgown (my gloves would go really well with hers, it was a really cute red and white one). The clothes dealers somehow missed one of the dresses, or maybe she just hid it away for me to find. It's a super sweet Nelly Don plaid late 50s straight dress with a matching jacket. I haven't tried it on yet but I bet it will fit. I went back into the bedroom in a desperate attempt to find a scarf that might have matched it but it was to no avail. I did find a nice white one with blue on it so I got it to represent the scarves she did have.

On the way out I snagged a couple pieces of jewelry as well. It was pretty picked over, but I did find a couple rhinestone hair pins and some really cool star burst earrings. I figure I can wear them together in memory of Mary. And maybe next time CollectoratorOne wants me to go to an estate sale with her I'll say yes as long as we can try to find out a little about the person's life while we are there and honor that life in the things we take with us.


  1. Hello! I found this blog entry so touching... "things" do have a life, don't they? If they are found in an antique store, somehow they're sanitized. You might remember whom you were shopping with that day, the chat with the store owner, but nothing about who had owned and used the piece in the first place. I really liked that you were pieceing together the puzzle that was Mary - that even though her collections were being cast to the four winds she was worth figuring out and would be linked to your choices from her home. I lost my father last year. This summer, I finally got around to cleaning out the middle drawer to his desk. Isn't a middle drawer the most personal thing, though? There are little bits of memorbelia that the owner has worked around, poked and passed over for decades. They make it personal. And when the drawer is emptied, sorted, something of that person is forever gone. Anyway, not to be morose or anything, I was just touched that you had such respect for Mary! Collectorating with conscience!

  2. Thanks for your comment! I lost my father almost two years ago now and your description of cleaning out that middle drawer really hit home! It is so true! When my sister and I had to do the same, I was grabbing up the strangest things out of his desk... vintage-beat-to-heck metal desk calendar from Rocky Mountain National Park here, African carved wooden figurine there...all I could think was there is some unknown reason my dad was keeping all of these little things. Of course I wish I had known about these things to ask of their story, but I guess there is some good in that mystery not being solved. I'll always chersih those werid little things... Because we only had 36 hours to clean out my dad's apartment before he was essentially evicted, my sister and I decided to let his less fortunate neighbors who knew and cared for my dad come over and take what they wanted instead of trying to pack it all up and sell it. That is the best feeling I have ever had, and I think my dad would have liked it too. Most of all I knew everything going out the door was destined for another purposful life and maybe just maybe they'll think of my dad when they use whatever they took. I have always believed as long as enough people are thinking about the person they really aren't all the way gone... Thanks for sharing!

    PS Sorry I did not find your comment earlier! I have been a little out of the loop, but I am trying for a comeback!