When I was a freshman in college I discovered history. I’d always liked reading about the past, but for the first time I became really excited about it. I was all ready to major in American literature when I was thrown into the core program at my small, public university. All freshmen were required to take a year of “humanities” classes which consisted of history, sociology, literature and writing. My teacher of the first term was a history professor, and he approached the curriculum through the study of history, incorporating the literature of the era along with other social studies. I was hooked.
It wasn’t enough that I was studying history in class, so I went in search of other things to fuel my interest. I can’t remember how I came to pick up this book by historical archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume, but I suspect it was a happy accident from repeated browsing at the newly opened B. Dalton bookstore in Asheville. But however I came to own the book, I quickly fell under the spell of the “Pleasures and Perils” of collecting. For a while my greatest ambition in life was to go mud-larking on the banks of the Thames, as the author made it sound so appealing.
But my life took a different turn, and instead of becoming a mud-larker, I became a teacher. And I had not picked up this book for thirty-five years.
Recently I was moving furniture around and in doing so was moving books to a new bookcase. I ran across my much-loved copy of All the Best Rubbish, and was reminded of what it had meant to me all those years ago. As a result, I put it in the reading queue.
To my surprise, the book seems to have had a lasting influence on my collecting. Ivor Noël Hume is not only a renowned archaeologist, he is also a collector, and the book, while it tells much about his job at Colonial Williamsburg, is mainly about the things he found over the years and what he learned from them. The main take-away is this: The most expensive artifacts are not always the most valuable in terms of history. Simple, everyday objects are most often the ones that can teach us the most about the past. And while Noël Hume’s examples were often ceramics and glass, the same can be said for clothing.
Collecting only the best and rarest may be satisfying to the egotist or to the person needing aesthetic stimuli to get him through the misery of life in a world of mediocrity, but it does nothing for anyone wanting to know what it was like to live in other centuries.
Another valuable lesson is that value is subjective, and is more often than not, based on opinion. Something that is thought to be ugly becomes less so when there are lots of dollar signs attached to the item.
Even though this book was published over forty years ago, so much of it will strike a chord with modern collectors:
The collector…has the residue of a lifetime for research and the acquisition of keys to doors beyond which lie journeys, adventures, and dramas that are not uniquely his own.
After all, it it not just the owning of objects, but the history that we can learn from these objects that is important.
I could not resist adding a photo of this 18th century engraving, as the woman on the left and I share a name. My grandmother was Elizabeth Adams (but was called Lizzie) and I was named for her, being Sharon Elizabeth Adams. I never knew the original Lizzie as she died the year before my birth, but by all accounts she was a kind and generous woman, with not a trace of larceny in her heart!