The Rat Unpacks

Up to my eyeballs in horny toad figurines and Grand Prize Beer bottle openers, I've decided to part with my collection of vintage Texana. Anybody want a Davy Crockett hanky?

August 2004By Comments

I’M JUST A GIRL WHO can’t say no. To anyone who asks—male or female, rich or poor, young or old—I can barely get a “yes” out fast enough. I accommodate friends, of course, as well as the occasional total stranger. My cheeks flush, my knees quiver, and my heart starts to race anytime a person shows me, say, a San Jacinto Monument lunch box and asks, “Hey, do you want this?”

I sure do. I’ve been collecting one thing or another—and another, and another—since I was ten, and today, forty years later, I’m still hot for vintage Texana. For me, something like a Grand Prize Beer bottle opener from the thirties or a fifties Davy Crockett handkerchief is a nostalgic thrill complete with historical interest and visual appeal. I love to poke around junk stores and antiques shops on weekends, and my lust for Texas rejects and relics has resulted in a collection of at least five thousand items. We’re not talking big-ticket purchases; as a poor student and later a budget-conscious single mom, I was never able to afford anything pricey—and, truth be told, I love the commonness, the everyday nature, of my old crap. But it’s taking over. My closets and cabinets are full, and I fear I will soon appear in one of those fool-of-the-day newspaper squibs: “Rescue workers had to remove five-foot-high stacks of 1940’s San Antonio Express fashion supplements before they could reach the middle-aged woman, who apparently was gored while trying to place a cowboy hat on the Longhorn skull above her couch.”

In addition to object overload, I’m also facing the departure of both of my sons for college this month, which means astronomical tuition bills and an eventual move to a smaller place. So I’m hoping to sell my entire collection. Much as I covet that San Jacinto lunch box, you can keep it. And do me a favor: Please take these burlap feed sacks and Lone Star coasters with you when you go.

I blame my fondness for hoary, musty collectibles on having had a passel of relatives who lived on farms or in small towns and who thus owned treasure troves hidden away in barns and storage sheds. When my siblings and I—who hailed from the relatively urban confines of Pampa—visited kinfolk during the summer, we spent hour after un-air-conditioned hour exploring the outbuildings, feeling like the sleuths in our library books as we discovered ancient keys or packets of letters tied with faded ribbon. And because my parents’ generation and their elders endured the Great Depression, every attic and cupboard was crammed full of junk they couldn’t bring themselves to throw away: tins of ancient liniment, grapefruit-size balls of rubber bands, and blue-tinted mason jars with zinc lids. Our finds sometimes produced funny stories. At my aunt Merle’s house, in Munday, for example, we unearthed a curious cast-iron utensil with a handle; Aunt Merle, who was born in 1904, identified it as a hair curler, recalling the time she overheated it in the stove flame and gave one of her sisters an unexpected change of hairdo. Outside of town was her sister Ina’s cotton farm, the default family gathering spot and the site of a vast, rickety barn full of tools, farming implements, and black widow spiders. If I could buttonhole a friendly grown-up, I often initiated a conversation:

Me: What’s this?

Friendly Grown-up: A gear for the old tractor. It’s no good. See, a tooth is broken. You could cut yourself on that.

Me: Neato! Can I have it?

If my mother was exasperated when I came home with my suitcase full of barnyard rejects, she never let on.

By my twenties I had my own place, and I appreciated the rustic look even more; it went so beautifully with cobwebs and dust. Soon my apartment was crammed with assorted objets d’art—tobacco tags, veterinary medicines, horny toad figurines, a bullet-stuffed bandolier, and even a circa-1910 washing machine, consisting of a large tub, a slotted cover, and a punched-copper plunger for agitation. (Never used! At least not since I got it.) I was known by kith and kin as a pioneer wannabe, and relatives from both sides of the family and all corners of Texas started enabling me left and right. For example, some 28 years ago I inherited an old scythe from Aunt Ina’s barn. “That was here when we moved to the farm in 1927,” she told me once, “and it was old then.” It’s a true antique, and I cherish it, splintery handle and all.

Other family treasures include the oak washstand my father’s parents bought when they married, in 1903, and the stoneware jar Daddy swiped cookies from when he was a schoolboy in Comanche in the twenties. I acquired lures, tackle, and a minnow bucket from my maternal grandfather; armadillo and roadrunner pins and other costume jewelry from my maternal grandmother; and—from their den wall—a mounted pronghorn head with mournful big-brown-marble eyes and a severe case of dandruff. These are modest possessions, true, but in our family they are heirlooms, and I could never let them go. (Well, I might make an exception for the pronghorn head.)

I’m not as attached to “boughten” things. Much as I like the metal beverage signs in my kitchen, they’re going, even the one that advertises Texas Punch—which was bottled in Pennsylvania. I’m blowing off all my funky hankies, from a child’s cotton one with a Texas-peanuts theme to a made-in-France linen blend that depicts an oil derrick, a cowboy on horseback, and a black man with a basket of cotton and has the original Neiman Marcus price tag: $1. There’s plenty more I can part with: Alamo- and Texas-shaped salt and pepper shakers stamped “Made in Japan,” as well as souvenir spoons, commemorative plates, and a panoply of unidentified cast-iron thingamajiggies. I have Western- and cowboy-themed tin toys and cereal prizes; I have jars full of Texas matchbooks, Texas wine corks, and sombrero-shaped buttons with little yarn ties. My library includes everything from a signed book by the sappy Dorothy Scarborough (In the Land of Cotton) to the Marvel comic The Two-Gun Kid in “Remember the Alamo!” And I love linens from the forties and fifties, which I often hang on the walls of my living room; the current display includes a dish towel printed with a recipe for tacos and a multicolored tablecloth featuring armed scouts defending a circled wagon train. (“Mom,” one of my sons asked me years ago, “did you know some people put pictures on their walls?”)

But the majority of my collection is paper—postcards, labels, booklets, and so on—some of which, despite being generally referred to as “ephemera,” is more than a century old. I have boxes and drawers full of such paper, which I’m sorting through piece by piece. Some items are hard to ditch because of their witness-to-history luster: a tattered 1911 recipe pamphlet from Gebhardt’s chili powder company, in San Antonio (arguably the first Tex-Mex cookbook ever published), a fancy invitation to the 1939 inaugural reception for Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a cardboard fan from a Taylor funeral home that shows Martin Luther King Jr. and his mother above the caption “Together Again.” Others I set aside out of pure sentiment, like the postcards my parents wrote home to their families while honeymooning 57 years ago.

Of all the tchotchkes in the Dingus Collection, the vintage postcards are what I’ll miss most. I see them as gaudy, disposable little artworks, and I’ve been collecting them since I was a teenager. After a few decades, I’ve ended up with some three thousand cards—and that’s just the Texas and Mexico categories (which include such subcategories as cacti, reptiles, agriculture, Indians, and the Alamo). Sometimes I’m partial to the picture—cowgirl pinups are a favorite—and other times I just love the message. On one 1908 card is a P.S. from the sender: “Tomorrow is Election Day. Hooray for Bryan.” And I have a series of cards exchanged by Red and Kay Smith, newlyweds in Houston in the late forties; on his way downtown in the morning, he liked to mail her cartoon pictures with sweet little messages on the back (“I can just hear you in the kitchen rattling the dishes . . .”).

Over the past three years I have sold some of my Texana on eBay, in league with my indispensable friend Nancy McMillen (a.k.a. “Agent 99″). I provide the “antiques” and the text; she shoots, lists, packages, and mails the merchandise. We don’t make much money, but occasionally bidders go pleasingly crazy over something: We sold a twenties-era blotter, featuring a come-hither cowgirl and advertising the Stetsons at an Austin men’s store, for $33. And if we’re not getting rich, we’re at least enjoying the contrast between eBay’s cyber-hipness and its retro wares, not to mention the pure hilarity of some of the users’ language. One kids’ book was guaranteed to be in “meant condition,” and the jewelry listings regularly offer the latest style of “neckless.” However, my favorite item description of all time was “JFK in Dallas Postcard—Pre-Assassination Portrait.” Gosh, I sure hope so!

But fun as it is, selling on eBay is painfully slow for those of us with day jobs, which is why I’m hoping to jettison the whole kitsch and caboodle in one fell swoop. So as I sort, tidy, and toss, I’m also saying good-bye to my beloved mini-museum before its contents, like the Texans who originally owned them, move on to a better place.

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