Buying The Source

May 10, 2019

Most people who come to see my collection assume that what is out represents the sum total of my holdings. Unbeknownst to them, the real secrets of my personal collection are housed in about 40 three-ring binders. There are the photographs, booklets, documents and advertising that document the history of daily life in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.
I have collected paper for decades now, and I still do not get tired of being on the hunt for new items. Last week, it was a trade card for a Lancaster County coverlet weaver and a photograph of a Sioux Sun Dance in the 1940s. The variety of opportunities in collecting paper is endless.
So the question is, why would you want to collect this sort of thing? Well, a few years ago I was asked to help an organization in re-creating a 19th-century town. I dug into the binders and found loads of original imagery that showed streets in various size towns. Here, instead of speculation, was the visual text of exactly how people lived and worked in small towns.
Collecting paper is something I think both every specialized or general collector should do. So you collect bottles, then acquire the advertisements, labels and store images that illustrate their use in a given time. It is cool to have and, more importantly, can help your understanding of how people really used your collections.
Some years ago, I found a really wonderful photograph of a young woman lying on a bed with a jacquard coverlet over her legs. The name and date in the corner block were clearly visible. It was a wonderful photograph that I later gave to a friend who is a weaver. She and I discussed that such documentary images of the use of coverlets (albeit later in the 19th century) were super rare. As a weaver, she valued the image, not only because of its rarity but also how it spoke to people actually using woven Pennsylvania coverlets in the period.
Hunting for paper is not always easy. In the old days, you could go into a used bookstore, and they would have piles of paper that were used as bookmarks. Good, bad and indifferent, you could always find something. However, as fewer and fewer untouched libraries exist anymore and the used bookseller is truly an endangered species, it means you have to look to other sources.
I love using eBay to find paper. Manipulating the search terms, one can track down paper pretty easily. Sometimes it is super cheap, like the 18th-century silversmith indenture that I got on eBay for $20, and sometimes it is expensive, like the coverlet trade card that was much more than that. In any case, a little knowledge and common sense can help you to find real treasures.
So consider starting a paper collection to support your larger collection of antique treasures. A lot of paper can fit in a binder, so it is also a great collecting opportunity for those of us who are downsizing.

Peter Seibert, a native Pennsylvanian, grew up in the antiques business and remains closely tied to auction houses, collectors, and dealers. Professionally, he has served as a museum director and public historian in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming. He holds a Master of Arts in American studies from Penn State and has authored two books and numerous articles on decorative arts, interior design, and history.
Peter Seibert

Peter Seibert

Peter Seibert, a native Pennsylvanian, grew up in the antiques business and remains closely tied to auction houses, collectors, and dealers. Professionally, he has served as museum director and public historian in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from Penn State and has authored two books and numerous articles on decorative arts, interior design, and history.

 

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