Sunday, August 11, 2013


I come across interesting collections at estate sales.  Over the decades of their lives, people save all sorts of things -- but why?  Sometimes the things are truly valuable antiques.  Or they have sentimental value.  People who grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s may have become accustomed to saving things for future use, and never got out of the habit.  Or maybe the owner hoped to  "repurpose" the collected objects in the future. 

Perhaps the most unusual collection I've found (to date) was at the estate sale of a woman who had carefully saved old foam rubber shoulder pads that she had cut out of innumerable jackets and blouses over a lifespan of more than 85 years.  The used shoulder pads -- hundreds of them -- were stored in a huge box in her garage.  (Perhaps she believed that if she waited long enough, padded shoulders would come back into style.  But why would she need to keep so many?)

Collection of pencils and other items, seen at an estate sale.  No, I didn't buy them.

At one recent sale, I entered the room that had been a home office, already full of shoppers.  On display were boxes full of collections of things.  A shoebox full of matchbooks.  A crate full of golf balls.  Green Stamps and Gold Bond Stamps.  A couple of boxes of pens and pencils. Jam jars full of rocks, of sea shells, of assorted nuts and bolts.  Paper clips.  Marbles.  Craft supplies.  Tall stacks of National Geographic and Arizona Highways magazines. 

A small, elderly Asian-American couple entered the room and started making their quiet way around, dodging half a dozen of their fellow shoppers as everyone tried to see the items that were for sale.  The elderly gentleman stood next to me, picked up the shoebox of Green Stamps, and commented, "People save all sorts of things.  But only God wants to save us."

He and I chatted about this topic for a minute.  Then I noticed that the room, previously noisy, had gone quiet. I looked around.  The elderly man, his wife and I were the only ones left.  As soon as the elderly man started talking about God, the other shoppers left.

The elderly man and I looked at each other.  He shrugged and turned his attention back to the box of Green Stamps.  I rooted through the boxes of writing instruments and found a couple of nice old mechanical pencils.

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to help some family members assess the collection of antiques their mom had left when she passed away.  She had many lovely items -- glassware and dolls, textiles and toys.  What she had the most of, though, in terms of sheer numbers, were buttons.  Hundreds of them.  Thank goodness they're small and didn't take up much space.

Buttons on the dining table

As I understand it, this relative had obtained some of her button collection from the estate of another relative, who had owned a dry cleaning business and saved buttons at work.  That means saving buttons was important to at least two family members from the Greatest Generation.  

We spread the buttons out on the kitchen table and sorted through them one evening. 

Bakelite (?) buttons

Glass buttons

Mixed materials buttons

Shades of red buttons

Shades of green and blue buttons
(some blue ones had been painted red, but the red paint had chipped off over time)

Why did the Grandmas save buttons?  It could have been because their families had lived through the Great Depression and they were accustomed to saving things they thought they might need someday.  

But would they have needed several hundred buttons? Probably not.  It must have been because they valued the buttons, and thought they were worth saving.  Other people might see them as fairly useless pieces of plastic, glass, and metal, few of which would ever be put to their intended use.  Certainly a glass button wouldn't survive long in a modern washing machine and clothes dryer.

But Grandma and Grandma must have believed that some things -- however archaic, however redundant -- are unique, beautiful, and/or potentially useful, and therefore worth saving.  

Perhaps the elderly gentleman at the estate sale knew that about God, too.        


For more information on collecting buttons, there are any number of websites you may visit.  Here are a couple:

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