Monday, May 27, 2013


Yesterday Karen and I went to an Antiques Fair, which often puts me in an agreeably reflective mood. I like antiques, particularly antique gadgets. If I allowed myself, I could fill a room with old radios (vacuum tubes!) and telegraph equipment (electromagnets!). Fortunately, I remain strong and my home uncluttered. Relatively.

I do have a small collection of stereo cards and a stereoscope with which to view them. These early 3-D Viewmasters were all the rage in the 1890s. I can imagine Victorian parlors with cabinets full of stereo cards, families and guests gathering after supper to go through them.

Like this: a Time Machine that, sadly, only goes one way.

Stereo cards were often published in series with common themes: world travel, religious tableau, slice of life. Some were saucy. These cards would have provided a startling "you are there" experience for people who seldom went anywhere. The Holy Land and other exotic locales were popular topics. World capitals. Natural wonders. And folks sure used to love taking 3-D photos of Niagara Falls.

A typical stereo card (though not one of mine). If you have the knack for "free fusing," you can see the 3-D effect without a viewer. It's like those "Magic Eye" graphics that were popular a few years ago; don't cross your eyes, just relax them as if looking at something far away, and the two images will merge into a center 3-D image. It's a handy skill for evaluating stereo cards in the store.

I don't collect any particular themes; I just look for cards that interest me and are in good condition. It's a cheap hobby--typically $2 to $10 per card. I like photos of places I've actually been myself, as well as vistas of long-vanished life (admirals reviewing an armada of sailing ships, ranks of mounted cavalry, farmhouses on empty plains, cute little kids who all got old and died). Science is always good--one of my favorites is a 3-D image of the Moon, which really drives home the fact that it's a sphere.

If you've mastered free fusing, try this one and be dazzled.

What I appreciate most about antiques are their connections to other people's lives. I saw a fat loose-leaf photo album yesterday that appeared to capture about 20 years of a young couple's courtship and marriage, including the man's service in World War II. What was a treasure like that doing on a table for me to paw through and pay pennies on the decade for? Why isn't it with their family? Did they not have any? Or was it one of those keepsakes that would have been cherished by someone but instead just slipped away, sold off by a greedy great-aunt at the estate sale? Every abandoned photo album is a tragedy, I think.

I once found an old wedding certificate in an antique store. It had small inset photos of the husband and wife, with ornate scroll work and graceful calligraphy. They were married in a small town on the East Coast, and their surname was unusual enough that I thought I had a shot at finding a modern relative. I wrote down the info and went online to find a historical society in their county and, failing that, the town library. The librarian didn't know that particular couple but told me there were families sharing their unique last name all over the place, undoubtedly related. I returned to the antique store and, for sixty bucks, sent a little fragment of someone's history back home, where the librarian was thrilled to get it and hang it on the wall. It was the right thing to do.

Yesterday I saw a cross-stitch sampler done by a young New England girl in 1824. What would she have thought if she'd known that in 2013, a man in California--which was still Spanish terra incognita at the time--would admire her needlework? Would that mean anything to her at all? How could it possibly? But don't you wish there were some way to let her know?

Karen and I are getting to an age where the artifacts we see have gone from being things we remember in our grandparents' homes to things we remember in our parents' homes to things we actually have in our home. Crying out "hey, I bought that new!" at an antiques fair is an alarming rite of passage.

I paid $10 for three stereo cards and Karen picked up a couple of pieces of costume jewelry that looks just like the stuff we used to make fun of my Grandma for wearing but I guess is cool these days as long as you wear it ironically. What our descendants make of it is their problem.

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