In the course of my task, I often had to stop and do research on a tool, a piece of clothing or a part of a horse's harness. I was equipped with a couple books on farm tools, antique magazines, and a 1920 Sears and Roebuck catalog. By far, the Internet kept me continually surprised by the number of clubs, web pages, forums, and online catalogs with information on nearly every item in the collection. It was amazing to find glass insulator groups, barb wire enthusiasts, and license plate clubs. Gigabytes of data on glass bottles manufacturing marks, metal forging techniques, and military memobealia. I traced a fire ax down to a liberty ship, complete with its entire history from beginning to end.
It has been both an adventure and an education as I poured over hundreds of items. I learned each item's history and whether or not an item was worth anything. I learned about the different uses of hand held lanterns, what hand tools were used to build a log cabin, how a horse was hitched to a wagon, and the various advancements in glass bottle manufacturing.
Over the years I started to see a theme. My father had not only collected what he was personally interested in, he collected the items which defined his childhood. My father was born in the 1920s, and graduated from high school in the midst of the Depression. He retired in 1977 and during that decade collected many items from a majority of states across the country. Some items were from my mother's side of the family. She grew up in Oklahoma until her family was chased out by the dust bowl storms. Many items were farming implements which Dad had experience with in his youthful years in northern Indiana.
My father was not a fastidious collector. Most of his over twenty-five hammers had rough handles, dozens of wrenches were lined with dirt and the World War I and II military equipment showed great wear and tear. Nothing was pristine or kept in cellophane. They were well used and handled by many ghosts of the past.
One day I was studying how glass bottles were made and came across the Owen bottle making machine of 1905. It revolutionized the industry in much the same way as Henry Ford's Model T changed transportation methods. Not to mention that Owen happens to be my mother's maiden name. There was also an Owen bottling company, which at it's peak, had 27 plants in the United States and Canada. Holding an old mineral water bottle, it occurred to me that I was not only holding a piece of history in my hands, but I was developing a real sense of the way people lived in various decades.
One theme that was exposed to the light of day was the sense of scarcity. Simple things we take for granted, like writing paper, string, and containers were stashed away like gold. Bottles were made thick in order to be refilled; cream cans and kerosene came and left in containers on the train. Despite the scarcity of items, it was also obvious how things were built to last. The over twenty types of hammers were forged with thick casts of steel and sturdy wooden handles. Manufacturing had not learned to cut corners yet. Bean counters had not found how to squeeze millions out of a penny here and a nickel there.
As a genealogist, I often note, dispassionately, when I write down that Aunt Mae was born in 1925. But when I held a soda bottle from 1929, I realized Aunt Mae might have held such a bottle in her little hand. The store keeper would have shook his head at the marvel of glass, and Mae's father would of suffered a slight heart attack when he discovered the beverage would cost an entire five cent piece.
My appreciation for museums soared when I realized how much history is stored in antiques and artifacts of our past. Maybe the younger generation is wrapped up in its I-pods and text messaging dithers, but I am glad to be part of a generation which links the harness and horseshoe with the invention of the hybrid automobile. They are items marking a timeline of history and giving one a perspective on how our ancestors and ourselves have lived and will live. I encourage genealogists to take some time away from searching for documentation and visit a local museum or an antique store. Look, touch and feel objects that your grandfather may have also touched. It may give you a different perspective.