There are many pleasures in collecting: learning about the objects you collect in terms of style, history, function and maker, searching for pieces in antique shops, flea markets, thrift shops and online, using your collected items like a spoon or fork when they have a practical function and of course displaying your collection for yourself and others to enjoy and covet on a daily basis. Since I moved into my apartment over 5 years ago, I have been looking for a small curio cabinet in which to exhibit my silver collection. Recently, I found a vintage English walnut veneered vitrine probably 1920’s-30’s in of all places Long Valley, New Jersey. It is the perfect size for its location on a short wall in the hallway to the bathroom. Its placement there, however, allows it to be visible from the dining area and what I like to term in my grandiose head, the drawing room.
The cabinet’s lovely demilune shape sitting daintily on 3 cabriole legs along with its glass door and sides, mirrored back and glass shelves give this piece of furniture a degree of lightness. A cabinet with an opaque back and wooden shelves would definitely not have produced this effect. The impression of weightlessness is further enhanced by the gleaming silver within the vitrine. The silver objects are doubled in the mirror and each piece and its doppelganger radiate light and numerous reflections. The cabinet and its contents produces a hallucination of silver that seemingly floats before the viewer.
My hallucinatory cabinet is filled with some of my most loved objects, for example a Sheffield plate 8.25” salver on 3 claw and ball feet by Robert Gainsford and dated 1808-1828. It is the oldest piece of silver that I own. I often imagine it being used to present the gentleman of a (grand) house with a letter or a glass of sherry. As I have discussed here and here my love of collecting silver goes beyond the mere value of the Gainsford salver for instance, but towards the past which is inscribed on it- the traces of use and handling that imbue it not only with physical markings, but the aura and presence of all those individuals who used this small tray before it came into my possession.
This aura of the object is heightened for me when a piece of silver is engraved with a monogram as on a late 19th century reticulated 6” bon bon dish with a elaborately scrolled edge by Wallace. Of course, I can never really know the identity of EAFS whose initials are sumptuously engraved in a series of swirls on the bottom of the dish. Was the bon bon dish given as a present with the engraving already done or did the buyer/owner of the dish monogrammed for their own pleasure and pride? It will always be a mystery, but one that need not be solved for the mere fact of the monogram gives me great satisfaction.
But what does all this stuff mean? (Sometimes it all frightens me.) Why do I collect it? Why do I feel the need to possess it? In part is a connection to the past as I have described, but it is also a link to the future. I will put my mark on these silver forks, spoons, knives, coffeepots, sugars, creamers, salvers, spooners and so on as others did before me. At the end of my life they will hopefully continue to exist and endure. I will have imbued them with my desire as well as the material traces of my use. This silver is a perverse claim for immortality just like this blog and this post will exist, somehow, somewhere, in some form forever.
A recent post entitled “Stuff & Junk” on one of my new favorite blogs, from the desk of Mr. Knappy-Head rants and reflections of a middle-aged homosexual, (me too!) reaches a similar conclusion regarding objects and immortality. In this lovely and poignant post, Mr. Knappy-Head begins with a description of a homeless woman whom he has often seen along 10th Avenue in New York City. He writes:
The volume of her possessions seemed to wax and wane over time, but the way she managed them was as consistent as it was elaborate. Typically, she’d have found a couple of those two-wheel carts people use for laundry or groceries and stuffed them with things hidden inside big, black trash bags. In addition, she’d have other containers and means of transport — a grocery cart or several cardboard boxes — and filled them with more bulging black trash bags…I wondered what she kept in those bags. I wondered, too, if she ever took the time (or even had the interest) to look at their contents. I could imagine that, for her, it was less about the specifics of these belongings and more — or even entirely — about the fact that they were hers. In a world of people with things, a world of possessions and ownership, a world in which our peers judge us as much by what we own and wear as by any other measure, it could be most important for her simply to have things she could call her own.
I too have seen this homeless woman a few times walking along 10th Avenue and speculated what things existed in all those black plastic bags. But what Mr. Knappy-Head does smartly is to connect this woman to the rest of us and our need for stuff. He humanizes her in a way I ashamedly never did and this fact strikes me profoundly. This unknown woman and I do indeed have something in common- a humanity and a need for possessions as a source of comfort and solace.
Mr. Knappy-Head argues further that our need for stuff is not just merely a symptom of consumer capitalism and its relentless and nefarious dialogue. It whispers to us, “You are not good enough. You are ugly. If you buy product x you will be good enough, you will be beautiful, but only for an instant and then you have to buy product y, then z and so on into infinity.”
This insidious capitalist murmuring, however, does not fully explain or contend with why people search out vintage and antique items. Consumer culture is always interested in the new. It easily discards things from one moment to the next. Something is broken. Don’t fix it, buy a new one, a better one, be beautiful. But as sites like eBay demonstrate, a nostalgic interest in past objects is a viable and profitable sector of our consumer culture (so in the end “old” things are co-opted into the system) and simultaneously provides a need and a desire that many of us share and which we do not find in new objects.
As Mr. Knappy-Head rightly concludes:
the comfort I find in things grows more pronounced the older I get and the more I feel my grip loosening on the brightly lit world of the material and on a future that used to stretch out endlessly before me. When I was much younger, I didn’t seem to put much value on many objects. My favorite book or album was only important because of what it contained, not just as an object in itself…does the hazy vision of my own mortality off in the distance prompt me to latch onto books and CDs and vintage Christmas ornaments in much the same way that she drags around all those bags, as if that solid connection to the world of things will lend me a little bit of credibility, if not immortality?
Mr. Knappy-Head, the unknown woman of 1oth Avenue and I are in agreement about a need for immortality through objects, although our coveting of this fleeting and ultimately unattainable sensation is expressed through different stuff. Perhaps there are those individuals who might call me and Mr. Knappy-Head materialistic, too involved with our stuff or indeed foolish for investing such depth of feeling into objects rather than people. (And what does this fact mean for the unknown woman on 10th Avenue and others like her?)
But life is ultimately about loss- loss of loved ones, loss of youth, loss of time, loss of memories and if my collection of silver gives me solace in face of these unavoidable horrors, provides me with a sense of a past larger than my own and connects me to all those souls who once owned what I now possess then all the better. My new curio cabinet filled with silver is more than just a collection of antique and vintage objects. More than and in the end just stuff, it is a vessel of immortal desire.