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Vintage Matters: Why we collect.


  1. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

In the vintage marketplace, what is being bought or sold more than any single object, is this bi-product of life: nostalgia. It is the free-radical element found on the table of every flea market,  in attics or basements and sometimes to the very attentive and lucky – on curbsides. It is the tale, the touch, and the switch, that brings us to that certain time and place.

I was thirteen years old, out on another expedition, searching the forgotten, overgrown and wooded spaces where teenagers could drink and socialize outside of the view the police, parents or passers by. These could be found in industrial sites, along railroad tracks, or on this occasion, under the “blue water tower” that perched above South Buffalo on Hancock Avenue. 

Along with the usual Genesee and Labbatt’s cans that littered the ground around the sumac at the base of the tower, I found a unicorn among the fodder of corner store brands: “Whale’s White Ale”.  I had never seen or heard of one before, but scooped it up like the gold detailing was 24 carat. It was obviously not from around here, and in reading the label, discovered it was from Baltimore, Detroit, Phoenix and Miami, but not Buffalo. It was exotic to me. 

Racing home to wash it, I could not help but think about how it got here, who brought it, and why it was left in this off the beaten path “party place” to decay.  It was the white whale of my early collection, with a uniquely New England feel to it. 

It held a place of prominence in my collection for years, though eventually replaced in importance by rarer cans, and thoughts of college and life away from home. I hadn’t returned to the area I found it, and eventually it was bulldozed and a nursing home was built in its place. The water tower is still there, but the woods now only occupy half the hill. 

It was during the summer after my freshman year of college that I found myself at the base of that same water tower; not looking for beer cans, but for one of those famous South Buffalo parties on the Hill. Always awkward and shy, I remember standing there in my parachute pants, trying to look cool, but really thinking about the day I found that can. It was this night ironically, that someone cracked my shyness shell, and little to my knowledge at the time, I was having a conversation with the girl who would become my wife. 

I am not sure what happened to the original can, I went back to college, my mom sold the house, and I moved my collection from place to place until one day, I just gave it away to someone just starting out in collecting. It was a hasty move, but with kids and bills and jobs, taking the time to display them properly was not in the cards. 

Last week, while on a pick to look at some brewery stuff in a collection, standing proudly on the top with some other neat cans, was another “Whale’s White Ale”.  I was taken aback, back to being 13 when a can was a real find, and back to being 19, having that first conversation with the love of my life, to now some 36 years later. 

This can has no real value, a few dollars at most, but I knew I had to own it. As it turns out, I needed to adopt the 599 of his other friends that came with him. The can could only hold twelve ounces, but for me it was overflowing with memories. 

As it turns out, I needed to adopt the 599 of his other friends that came with him.

As you may have surmised, I grew up in South Buffalo, a neighborhood where everyone knew everybody, or you knew their cousin. It was a tight community, a place with a long standing blue collar history. I grew up listening to the stories from the dads in the neighborhood with tales about the golden days of Buffalo, calling back to photos of Main Street jammed with street cars and crowds of shoppers. I always wished I had lived back then, even just for a day. 

Well, somewhere between 13 and now, I came across this loving cup. Having a penchant for all things “South Buffalo”, I was excited to find it.  It is not sterling, or even good electroplate, but it is about 21” tall, and inscribed with a secret. It reads:

“South Buffalo Road Drivers Assn. October 8, 1909, First Prize, Class A Trot, Won by…?”

No one won? All this work on a loving cup and no one won? How could this be? Once again, my mind raced to what path this trophy took from being engraved, to finding its way to an antique flea market? I bought it of course, and it has proudly contained sunflowers in fall, snapdragons in summer, and pine boughs in winter. 

Value? I guess the $75 I paid for it ten years ago. But if things were valued on their ability to create conversations, I would say thousands. “Horse races in South Buffalo?” “ “In 1909?” “Wouldn’t that just be Buffalo at that point?”. You get the idea, it is a catalyst in tin, and low quality silverplate. 

I know the items are unrelated, but their value is not. The reason pickers rise to search tables of stuff with flashlights in the dark, and sort through dusty boxes in attics and moldy basements is to help bring you and your memories together.  Of course we do this without knowing what makes your historical synapses fire, but gamble on the idea that what we find, might somehow make life a little more meaningful. With all the detritus that passes through our waking hours, it is this random stuff, that hopefully takes you to a place of happiness and warmth. 

Why do we pick? This is why we pick. Why do we collect? This is why we collect. 

Written by Steven Appler

Steven Appler

Antique aficionado, Steven Appler launched his passion for the hunt at the tender age of twelve, combing the wilds of South Park Lake in South Buffalo for cone-top beer cans, but instead finding a dead body. Since then, he has kept busy as an artist, art educator and college professor, and passionate antique picker, seller, and enthusiast of art and design, history, and research. A vintage find that is meaningful to you aesthetically, emotionally or monetarily is what makes antiquing such a worthwhile experience. Steven loves to share his knowledge from over 40 years of antiquing with his customers, and now his readers.

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