Friday, May 30, 2014

Material Culture Minute: "We Go from One Thing to Another"

There is often a fine line between what antique dealers sell and what they collect. In some cases, dealers display their personal collections inside their shops. And why not? They give patrons something else to look at, and the collection doesn't (as far as we know) take up valuable space inside the dealer's home.

Tyler and I recently encountered an impressive dealer collection at an antique store in Maryland. As we walked around the shop, we admired the hundreds of items the dealer had in his collection. We didn't need to ask about the collection ourselves to learn more about it, though. A regular beat us to it. In response, a store clerk explained:

Store clerk: "Well, Alfred's been buying oyster cans. You can see he's got them lined up there along the ceiling. He's really into them right now. We go from one thing to another."

Many of the oyster tins on display inside this antique shop looked like this beauty. On the reverse, the can assures customers that its contents are safe for consumption. Oyster packagers added such labels when the federal government enhanced its food safety laws around 1900. Legislators crafted many of these laws in response to a variety of food-related dangers that developed as the food processing industry expanded with little oversight and consumers were less and less likely to buy their food from the source (or a local middle man). In the case of oysters, deadly cases of typhoid fever (caused by salmonella) had been linked to the mollusk.
Oyster tin, Pride of the Chesapeake brand, 1920s, 7.25" x 6.56," 2007.0054.01 (Smithsonian)

Regular store patron: "Oh, I like them oyster crocks. Even seen them oyster crocks?"

Store clerk: "Oh, yeah, they're pretty nice. We just bought one the other day for $2,500."

Sure, that's a lot of of money. But many food containers (or advertising items, including stoneware crocks) weren't meant to or expected to last long. So I'm not surprised the market supports premium prices for items that would have been considered disposable or not long for this world when they were first used.

Perhaps the "new" crock looks something like this one, sold recently at Crocker Farm Auction for $345. According to Crocker Farm, the five gallon crock dates to about 1880 and is likely from Ohio. It is marked: “A. BOOTHS SOLID MEAT OYSTERS."

It's hard to say what this dealer's next thing will be. In the mean time, I'll keep an eye out for one of them oyster crocks.


  1. Collectors of product packaging often set up "country stores" or "general stores" in their houses. And of course all these collections of cans and jars and unopened boxes of washing powder rely on the inertia of folks who do not move house (and have basements and outbuildings to hold the overflow).

    1. Boy, I'd love to see one of those "country stores"! This particular dealer had a lot of unopened cleaners, medicines, etc., for sale also. (The oyster tins were NOT for sale.)