texasmonthly.com: When did you first start collecting vintage Texana?
Anne Dingus: When I was just a kid, maybe eight or ten, I had all kinds of wonderful things stashed away inside a cigar box, which was the standard treasure chest for children of the fifties and sixties. Inside there were rocks, most notably “desert roses,” which I think were merely gypsum but had been wind-sculpted over the years so that each resembled a many-petaled flower. Desert roses are not uncommon in the Palo Duro Canyon, near my hometown of Pampa in the Panhandle. I had lots of little items that my aunts—my father’s four sisters—gave me, such as embroidered dresser scarves, old-fashioned bobby pins, and funky hats with fake flowers. (I suspect they might have been as happy to get rid of these items as I was to receive them.) The collection I had the most fun with as a child was my coin collection, because Aunt Rita and her husband ran a vending-machine business and they would have dozens of cigar boxes full of change. She’d let me exchange Lincoln pennies, Jefferson nickels, and Roosevelt dimes—regular ol’ money—for Indian head cents, buffalo nickels, and Mercury dimes. I had so much fun sorting through those boxes of change.
texasmonthly.com: Who introduced you to collecting?
AD: No single person gets the credit; instead, the majority of my family on both sides do. When I was growing up, I had no close relatives living in cities. Everyone was in a small (or smaller) town, or actually out in the country. Thus, we learned early to entertain ourselves, and the major source of our entertainment was exploring the closets, sheds, attics, and barns that were jam-packed with dusty old items. Because my parents’ families had endured the Great Depression, they kept everything, just in case they might need it again someday. So there were boxes filled with school papers and books, gloves in every color of the rainbow, enormous rhinestone brooches, and ancient kitchen utensils. I never got tired of looking through stuff. It used to tickle my aunts to no end. I’d show one of them a little ceramic jar with roses and she’d say, “Why, that was Mama’s hair receiver! I haven’t seen that in twenty years!” (Ladies used to save the hair from their brush and comb in such a container, and eventually use all the strands to make a hairpiece.) Later, when I was in college, I lived in the Montrose section of Houston, which at that time had not been gentrified and was much more down-at-the-heels and charming. There was a huge, warehouse-y old junk shop a few blocks from my apartment, and when I was nineteen I bought from that store a shoe box stuffed with paper—name cards, recipe booklets, clippings, photos, letters, and of course, postcards. From then on, I was hooked on vintage ephemera.
texasmonthly.com: What is your most treasured piece?
AD: Oh, it is very difficult to pick a single item out of—this is embarrassing—five thousand or so, but it would probably be one of my pieces of cast iron. I could never part with either of my windmill weights, which are—were—used to counterbalance the mill’s mechanism against the power of the wind. One is an Eclipse brand shaped like a crescent moon, and the other—unmarked—is round with a raised star on it. They’re not that big, maybe six or eight inches in diameter, but each weighs a good forty pounds or so. I also have a great painted iron doorstop that shows a star with one of each letter of “Texas” in the five points, as well as a Longhorn amid prickly pear cactus against a blue sky. But I do have one antique that I’m going to toss—well, make that “sell”; it weighs at least two hundred pounds, so ain’t nobody tossin’ it nohow. It’s a miniature cast-iron safe, about eighteen inches high, manufactured around 1907 by the Victoria Safe and Lock Company of Victoria, Texas. It’s cool; I love the red star on the front. But it’s dangerous; after deciding to use the safe as an end table, I found that it chipped coffee cups when I set them down, it left dents in my hardwood floor, and after I managed to bump against it, the darn thing broke my little toe—twice.
texasmonthly.com: Do different pieces remind you of different times in your life?
AD: Very few of my objets d’art remind me of different times in my life mostly because they originated from so many different periods in American and Texas history that I tend to see each item more as a representative of its era rather than as a reminder of my life and its ups and downs. A box of forties-era Tintex dye is cool, but it predates me by a decade. I just like the picture of the smiling housewife, who clearly loves nothing better than dyeing old clothes. It thrills her! Or, a can of old pesticide from my Aunt Ina’s barn is appealing to me because of the stylized thirties-era lettering and wording. I have a lot of old Texas license plates from the thirties, forties, and beyond in hues of black, orange, yellow, and green. But even the family items I own aren’t necessarily things I remember; they’re just letters, pictures, and presents that various grown-ups in my family had exchanged while I was an oblivious little girl having fun playing Brave Pioneer in the root cellar.
texasmonthly.com: How have your tastes changed throughout your years of collecting?
AD: I have grown indifferent to a lot of the things I thought were charming or hilarious or bizarre when I was younger. For example, I once collected silent butlers (lidded ashtrays with handles). At bridge club gatherings or other parties, a servant or an attentive hostess simply held out the silent butler, opened the lid with the thumb lever, and offered it to each smoker in turn so he or she could tap off their ashes. This seemed like such a funny concept to me—so affected and goofy. I had everything from a silver-plated shell-shaped one to a painted-tin one that was shaped like a book. I grew out of that fad, though. Now, the butlers are silent indeed. I also was once into vintage-doll clothes and funky party decor—that’s all over—and believe it or not, Texas bricks. I have dozens, from the ever-so-common Whiteselle Corsicana Cherry Reds to one that warns “Don’t Spit on Sidewalk.” I never did get a Thurber—the Holy Grail of Texas bricks. Eventually I’ll move out of my house into a smaller place now that both of my sons are in college, but I doubt that I’ll dig up my Texas-brick sidewalk—except, perhaps, the Alamos and stars.
texasmonthly.com: What parts of your collection are the most difficult to say good-bye too?
AD: I’ll really miss my wonderful postcards. I own thousands, and some have been my housemates for more than thirty years, but the Texas ones are my favorites. There’s a cute farmerette advertising the beauties of Plainview, a gaudy picture of the Alamo outlined with Christmas lights and adorned with the six flags of Texas (that’s artistic embellishment), the requisite joke pictures of giant celery or other produce on the back of a railcar, the famous “Texan’s Map of the U.S.” that shows our state taking up half the nation, and so much more. I especially love the postcards called “linen,” which are printed on visibly textured linen paper and colored in surreally bright hues. I have practically everything Texas-related: the Alamo, cowboys, cowgirls, cacti, oil scenes, agriculture, you name it. And on many I know the messages by heart; I feel like the original writers are long-lost relatives—never to be known, yet human and likable. One 1911 postcard written by a little boy notes that “Tommy has the measles and is in the bed with Momma and Aint Ada.”
texasmonthly.com: Have your sons also become pack rats?
AD: They don’t collect a thing (except possibly dust, after marathon movie sessions with their friends). They have always viewed my passion for vintage memorabilia with bemusement—and amusement—as they grew up. Although Western-themed items are hardly appealing to people of their age, they nonetheless appreciate oddity. (They came by this trait honestly.) I recently used a lot of fifties-era costume jewelry pins to create a scene around a doorjamb. It shows a line of covered wagons passing buffalo and cacti and being attacked by Indians. The Conestogas, warriors, arrows, and critters are all pieces of inexpensive vintage jewelry. As the artist was at work, the boys indulged in their usual exaggerated eye-rolling, but later I did overhear them telling their friends, “Look at my mom’s latest display. It tells a story.” Overall, though, my treasures are not their cup of Texas tea. When I used to moan and groan about the size and number of my collections and how long it was taking me to sort everything out, they would just smile and say, “Don’t worry about it, Mom. Sometime in the future, when you’re long gone, we’ll get rid of all of it for you in a couple of days.”
texasmonthly.com: What items seem to sell the best on eBay? the least?
AD: Cowgirl items sell extremely well; they definitely outsell cowboy things. My friend and eBay agent, Nancy McMillen, and I once sold a deck of cowgirl playing cards for $66. Texas- and Mexican-themed vintage linens always fetch a good price. Texas postcards are reliable, unless they’re unremarkable street scenes, which are extremely common. But the most money we ever made for a single postcard was an even $100 for a Halloween card. No trick—all treat!
Sometimes things flat-out don’t sell. For example, I have a large assortment of old medicine tins and related items, so I tried listing on eBay some twenties-era boxes that had once contained feminine hygiene products. One was a rubber item referred to as a “sanitary apron.” No takers. Bring me the Midol.
texasmonthly.com: Where did you find most of your things?
AD: I remember what friends give me. My college chum Cynthia Hudson gave me a nineteenth-century wooden wool-carding comb, which is not only just a cool-looking antique but also great for displaying postcards (they fit nicely between the large pointed teeth). And I’d never forget the origin of family items—Aunt Maxie gave me the cut-glass pickle dish and Aunt Rita gave me the vintage games and cards. But I rarely remember where I acquire most of my stuff. I haunt junk stores, antiques shops, and resale places—not usually here in Austin, where the prices are too high, but always on the road in small towns. The silver lining is that antique-sellers are a great lot—or at least I think so, as we share so many interests.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think you’ll feel like a new woman without all of your collections with you?
AD: I hope I will. I vastly underestimated the time it will take to inventory and categorize everything; only the books and postcards are currently sorted and done. There are still the vintage maps, calendars, placemats, cookbooks, spice tins, metal soda signs, toys and games, handkerchiefs . . . there’s a lot more to do. Or maybe, I just need a bit longer than I realized to say good-bye.