Friday, June 4, 2010

Theirs Now Mine - The Secret Lives of Finds

Thanks to all who posted thoughtful comments about my last post where I mused about the difficulty of purging thrifted finds. I'm heartened to know I'm in such good company.

Lately, I can't help but feel a little sad when I buy vintage things. True, an old brooch or a well-used piece of Tupperware is just an object and material goods have no soul. Nevertheless, I often wonder about the back stories of the goodies I scoop up at garage sales and thrift stores.

It really hit me the last time I visited my parents' and I went to the estate sale of a woman called Willow who had just moved into a retirement home. The sale was being run by some loving neighbours who were helping Willow out. It felt wrong walking around a stranger's home, especially considering that the rooms looked like they hadn't been touched much since Willow left. I don't know why I feel this way either. It's not as if I knew her, yet being surrounded by her personal artifacts dating back to the fifties, it's hard not to feel a little connected. The objects - including her vast collections of Avon bottles - all looked lonely. I began wondering about the years she had lived in the house. Had she been married. If so, had here husband passed away? Did she have kids? If so, where are they living? What did Willow look like? What perfumes did she like? Was she a good cook? Sometimes when I buy really old things, like kitchen utensils, I wonder if the person who originally owned them is now deceased. Would they mind that kids in my class are now using their old wooden rolling pin to make salt dough Egyptian mummies?

This week a girl in my class brought in a postcard and family photo that had been left in a time capsule in her house. They were from the 1950s. The students were so taken by these artifacts and everyone took their turn examining them. When the students returned to their desks, the girl brought me the postcard, which had been torn in half as one student had grabbed it out of another student's hands. I'm glad she didn't start crying, or I may have joined her. Maybe it was PMS, but I felt really sad all of a sudden. On one hand, it was one of a gazillion vintage postcards you can find in an antique mall. On the other hand, it seemed sad to think that this card, which someone had gone to the trouble to stash in a hiding hole - a card that had survived in the wall of a Scarborough home for almost 60 years - could be destroyed in a careless second.

Vintage treasures may not have souls, but they do hold meaning. Objects passed down, or even cast out are imprinted with untold stories of places visited, happy memories, unremarkable daily routines, family tragedies, births, and deaths. They document a look, a feel, and a style that has come and gone. Quite often I get a feeling that the kind of vintage things I'm drawn to were well loved the first time around. If I'm lucky enough to buy these treasures at garage sales, I always make a point of telling the seller that the items are going to a good home. This always brings a smile. And I never haggle. Do you have the same internal dialogue play like a tape when you pick up previously enjoyed treasures?

I'm going yard saling tomorrow. Maybe I'll come back with more things to show and talk about. Until then...


  1. Well said! I think it is one of the reasons I have trouble passing up vintage items. They seem to need a home after being so loved for so long.

  2. I know how you feel. I always wonder what happened to the owners of my beautiful vintage finds.

    When they end up in my church basement, it's always probably because they died or they were placed. It's sad but it's the circle of life.

    My dad is thinking of the future, i.e after he's gone, and already trying to get rid of his multiple collections (3000 records,10000 books etc) so I don't have to. I find this very sad because I don't ever want to be without him but at the same time I find this oh so thoughtful.

  3. I'll be honest. I've been very sad at estate sales a lot of times. One especially - clearly this woman had a huge hoarding issue that said she had died ages ago but her husband had kept it all... I imagine to him, this was all 'her'... and then he died and the house was full to busting. The sale took place over three weekends there was so much. You can't even imagine - At each sale they had no idea what was going to be in the next one- they uncovered as room allowed..

    But when I was there people were pawing through stuff like animals, throwing stuff on the floor...walking over what they didnt want like it was garbage.

    None of it was garbage to the now dead couple. It made me not want to go, for real.

  4. I feel this way too about the things I buy. Sad for the person who cherished them for their whole life, especially in a situation where the person fell ill and had no choice. For this reason, I am going to start unloading all my stuff when I get older, so that I don't have to lay in some nursing home picturing ebay people fighting over my treasures. On a sad note, I have an elderly neighbor who has a home full of beautiful things, and she just broke her hip and will now be moving to a smaller place. She has a pair of Noritake (I think)china ducks, they are those ducks you see in asian art...Mandarins...only they are in shades of cream and beige. The most beautiful things I have ever seen. (close to $200 each on ebay) She just told me last week that rather than have her daughters just sell them, she wants me to have them, because she knows I will love them as much as she did. Isn't that sweet? And sad?


About Me

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I'm a slightly off-beat Toronto-area teacher who enjoys writing and photography. I come from a family of collectors and now I'm dragging my own family around to yard sales. It's just a bit of fun. Enjoy the scenes.