The Nostalgia Broker
Alex Shear's Obsession with consumerism Has Created a Mirror of Modern America
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98
His singularly focused mind was saying "hat pin holders, hat pin holders, hat pin holders" as he made his way through the market aisles, when he noticed a booth that contained 1940s bumper cars from nearby Hershey Park. The 10 cars were shiny and colorful and stopped Shear in his tracks.
"Something went off in my head," he says emphatically, remembering his favorite childhood pastime--sneaking up on girls and smashing into them in bumper cars. "I'm going to graduate from hat pin holders! I saw the beauty of nostalgia here in front of me. I saw culture in everything I did, and it was all out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania." For Shear, bumper cars embodied both America's mania for cars and its love affair with amusement parks and roadside attractions. Bumper cars from the 1940s symbolized postwar prosperity, when the emerging Levittowns and new highways placed the American Dream within the grasp of the middle class. What's more, these bumper cars were from Lancaster County, where Shear was born and raised, and they evoked his childhood in such a visceral way that they could be likened to Charles Foster Kane's Rosebud sled. "Stuff" was fast becoming "iconography." Shear recalls, "My entire life went past me. I had this calling to chronicle the America I knew in the twentieth century. This was the beginning of my dream to someday build the Museum for Regular People."
It takes a certain audacity to make the leap from collecting hat pin holders to chronicling twentieth-century American popular culture, but Shear is an intense kind of guy. At the time--the early 1970s--he was working as a housewares buyer for JC Penney, building what he says was the store's first kitchen shop, although Penney's had developed a full-fledged kitchen department as early as the 1950s. Finding no suitable reference materials with which to study consumer trends, Shear began cultivating his own reference base, not with a camera but with a checkbook, obsessively buying the best examples of the twentieth-century American kitchen. Soon he had acquired a collection of the most stylish and innovative toasters, mixers and coffeepots ever produced in this country. He knew that he was building what he claims is the only kitchen archive in the country, but he saw no connection between his work as a buyer and the bumper cars.
Since Shear had no room in his Manhattan apartment for a bumper car, he couldn't buy one, but in his mind a collection had begun. Of course, it would take another 25 years of amassing tens of thousands of artifacts, or as Shear says, "building lines," for the housewares buyer to evolve into a product designer with his own firm, Alex Designs, and then into his present profession. But who becomes a nostalgia consultant overnight?
On a humid July morning at Shear's apartment, the bearded 57-year-old nostalgia consultant sits in his living room, reclining in a futuristic yellow chair from the 1962 Seattle World's Fair that was originally designed for the Space Needle's restaurant. He wears a short-sleeved denim shirt, pleated khaki trousers and large tortoise-shell eyeglasses. Suddenly, he looks up from his datebook and says matter-of-factly, "This is not about accumulating stuff." His expression shows no irony, no hint that he is in what was once a six-room home and is now a six-room museum with a bed and a sink. His kitchen is too cluttered with diner memorabilia, newspapers and old juicers to be of use. His study contains shelves filled not with books but with industrial paperweights, model cars and old food tins. The long entryway has so many promotional thermometers, rocket-inspired sleds, work shirts, wooden manhole covers and chest-high stacks of board games, such as "Capital Punishment--for 2 to 4 Adults" and "What Shall I Be? The Exciting Game of Career Girls," that you almost have to wade through it sideways.
Although Shear is serious, his roommates are all smiles. A life-sized cardboard Coppertone woman in a white string bikini grins seductively. A bust of Farrah Fawcett with a string that can be pulled out of her head to make her hair grow stares blissfully from a pink plastic pedestal. Seven-foot-tall tin men, once used as trade signs at auto-repair shops from the 1920s through the 1950s, line the living-room wall. There are men made of galvanized steel and men made of plumbing pipes. Men made of radiators and men made of baked-bean cans. Men with air ducts for hands, electrical-outlet boxes for stomachs, taillights for eyes, upside-down funnels for hats, motor oil cans for necks and gutter pipes for arms. "This is a certain love affair, a passion," Shear says, sharing a smile with a tin man.
Nearby, on a streamlined 1960s Boomerang sofa, Shear's son, a 15-year-old wearing a Mobil Oil work shirt and green army shorts, thumbs through an issue of Popular Mechanics. He leans on what appears to be a grocery shelf of pillows--Chef Boy-ar-dee, Aqua Net Professional Hairspray, Tootsie Rolls and Oreos--and orders catalogues from the back of the magazine that he has no intention of buying anything from. "I just like to look at stuff," he says. What kind of stuff? Phone-tapping equipment, government surplus, beer-making supplies and tools.
When I ask the teenager what has invariably been an awkward question for the Shear family to answer ever since Shear's collection overtook his 9-to-5 job--namely, what his father does for a living--he pauses for a long time before blurting out, "He's a corporate exhibit designer who has thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands of items. He also has a marketing business."
In fact, Shear has one of the most extensive private collections of American popular culture in the United States. With more than 55,000 artifacts that document the twentieth century (including more than 10,000 postcards), his holdings are more numerous than those found in many museums. Two-thirds of the items reflect postwar consumer culture, including everything from classics of industrial design by Raymond Loewy to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf dolls.
The collection is Shear's passion and his art, and he has managed to combine his eye as a buyer, his background in marketing and his penchant for interpreting American history through material goods into what is perhaps the only marketing company that boasts a museum-quality collection as one of its credentials. His company, Shear America, uses his vast resources to help other companies package the American Dream through traveling exhibits, displays and advertisements.
Shear's unique take manifests itself in a variety of job descriptions that are well suited to the upcoming fin de siècle celebrations. He calls himself a retro marketer, a millennium planner, a corporate curator, an exhibit designer, an armchair anthropologist, a fad forecaster and, of course, a nostalgia consultant. His long-term vision is to establish his own museum, The Museum for Regular People, but he'd gladly host PBS' "Chubb Antiques Roadshow."
Ever since he contributed items to "Great Stuff," a 1992 exhibit at the Children's Museum of Manhattan, Shear's collection has been in demand. He has exhibited his tin men--actually, steel-dipped-in-zinc men--at a congressional meeting of the American Zinc Institute in Washington, D.C., and his industrial paperweights at an American Iron and Steel Institute meeting. He's been featured in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. The History Channel filmed a segment on 100 years of the American home, using many objects from Shear's kitchen archive. (He had 24 hours to rummage through his five cluttered storage facilities outside the city for the best of his 60 coffeepots, 60 toasters and 25 vacuums.) And if he has his way, Good Housekeeping magazine will launch an exhibition of items that didn't get their seal of approval, such as a 1980s-era .357 Magnum Hand Gun Blow Dryer.
Still, Shear's high point in terms of credibility was when the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, which is the National Museum of Design of the Smithsonian Institution, included objects from his collection for its 1993 exhibition, "Mechanical Brides." The show featured household objects specifically designed to make housework alluring to women, to show the gender-based division of labor from 1920 to 1960. Many of the items were lent by Shear: miniature 1950s AT&T phones in pastel colors; "just-like-mommy" electric washing machines for girls; five rare Corning "Silver Streak" Pyrex glass irons that took Shear 20 years to collect, at around $800 each. Today, the jewel-like irons, made mostly of glass during the Second World War because of the metals shortage, are nearly impossible to find due to a fatal manufacturing oversight. Use them too often and the gem-like colors--ruby, emerald, cobalt--turn as brown as a Sylvia Plath mood ring.
Unlike a museum curator, who must adhere to certain directives and social obligations, not to mention established organizing principles, Shear serendipitously buys from instinct. "You see, this is so personal from my eyes," he says. "A curator in a museum setting is given an assignment to cull, to develop a whole collection. That is different from building an arcade of products from the heart." To bolster his claim, he produces a letter that Rodris Roth, curator of the Division of Social History Domestic Life Collection at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote to him in 1993: "None of us has or can gather objects to the extent that you have or display them in quite the way you do. As you know from having lent to 'Material World,' our exhibits provide an index of sorts to our collection--as well as what we may lack!"
By collecting everyday consumer artifacts such as hair dryers and coffeepots, Shear has built a time capsule that reflects and records daily American life. While curators and auction-house buyers were acquiring exceptional, one-of-a-kind artifacts from the past--such as paintings and fine furniture--that reflected a limited segment of the population, Shear was building an archive of mainstream Americana for mainstream America. As such, his collection offers broader insights into the average American's life during the twentieth century, from Depression-era ingenuity to postwar materialism to 1970s disco culture.
As we cross into the next century, Shear's collection provides us with a fantastic window into who we are as a culture. "Alex has created an invaluable resource for serious scholars by seeking the things that people did not value, which is what great collectors do," says Ellen Lupton, a curator of Contemporary Design at the Cooper-Hewitt. "As a museum curator, I'm interested in the social and aesthetic value of material culture, but you can't study that without the objects. Alex has the actual stuff."
It seems that as we near the millennium, nostalgia has never been more cutting-edge. Everyone, particularly baby boomers, is buying items from the 1950s, '60s and '70s; the word "retro" has replaced "cool"; and Shear America is fielding calls from museum curators, television producers, corporations and trade associations, discussing possibilities ranging from traveling exhibitions to a television series. It seems that everyone wants a hand in documenting the twentieth century. "There's no question this is overwhelming," Shear says, referring to the immense scope of his ambitions versus the two years until the millennium. "I see myself as a pilot with an overloaded 747 trying to lift off a short runway."
Shear believes he has a patriotic mission to communicate through his stuff, which for him means focusing on the struggles and the triumphs of the common man. This is why he won't buy, say, one of Andy Warhol's Little Red Riding Hood cookie jars--or any cookie jar, for that matter, unless, of course, it is in the shape of Famous Amos. (The self-made cookie entrepreneur is one of Shear's heroes.) Or why he'd pass up the ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz , which are now behind glass at the Smithsonian Institution. Shear yearns to understand and celebrate the regular guy, the working stiff who had to put milk on the table, not the celebrity. "Through these artifacts I might better define who we are as a people," he says. "This is about this country's social mosaic, its problems, its hopes, its desires, its unfairness. I celebrate America. I'm a patriot who does not wave a flag."
To demonstrate the point, Shear reaches two shelves below "Brook Shields: The Most Glamorous Teenage Doll" and the "Music for Washing and Ironing" record album and grabs a foot-tall ceramic ashtray in the shape of a nuclear cooling tower. The ashtray, which was mass-produced, has a thin brown-and-white glaze like a coffee mug that you might find at a tourist-trap gift shop. The tower says "Three Mile Island" in brown block letters and has turret-like cutouts on top. Rest a lit cigar in one of them and the plumes of smoke suggest a nuclear meltdown. Although highbrow collectors would dismiss the ashtray as mere kitsch, the piece is the equivalent of a Rembrandt to Shear. It forms part of his Duck-and-Cover/Fallout Memorabilia, which comes under the heading of Atomic Bomb Memorabilia. He owns 62 items in this category, from a low-budget board game called "Reactor: A Radiating Experience" to a first-run fallout shelter sign.
"There's a collective response from average folks that I'm interested in hearing," he says. "You have The New York Times and then you have this, the popular response." When Shear gets going it's hard to cool him down. "This is America at its best," he goes on. "This is the Three Mile Island disaster that they are covering up. This is our Chernobyl. They don't know what they are doing! This is scary. This ashtray is, in a sense, the middle finger to the whole thing."
Conversely, when you browse through Shear's collection you are, in a sense, looking at his life. During the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, he had to evacuate his mother, who lived 15 miles from the reactor, a task that, incidentally, he has some training in. During his military service he was trained in decontamination techniques with the U.S. Army 318 Chemical Corp. By the same token, his collection of miniature brides and grooms began during his divorce eight years ago. And in the 1980s, after a line of drinking glasses he was mass-producing was copied by competitors, Shear entered into a seven-year copyright infringement lawsuit that inspired him to collect knockoffs. He owns 40 bottles of 7UP-like derivatives with names like 7-Down, Upper-Ten and Upside Down.
The longer it took the court case to be resolved (he eventually won), the more Shear began to see business as a type of warfare. Not only did he show up for court dressed from head to toe in khakis, but he expanded his collection into trench art--items crafted by soldiers out of spent artillery shells and cartridge casings during lulls in the fighting. He bought sleek coffeepots, a hurricane lamp, a rug-hooking kit, a 1942 field officer's mug and dozens of other items, all made by soldiers during wartime. He refuses to buy guns or other weapons.
Shear grabs a wooden swagger stick from a shelf of trench art and becomes a squadron commander on an aircraft carrier stationed in the South Pacific in 1945. "We are going to take a run into Iwo Jima at night. Now MacArthur is going to send in Jimmy Doolittle. They're going to drop the big bomb here," he says, cracking the swagger stick on an imaginary wall map and finishing the briefing.
Shear's off-the-cuff, anecdotal style has been compared to that of Sister Wendy Beckett, the bucktoothed nun who hosts a series of art programs on the BBC. He speaks in long tangents, linking items to legends, history to billboards, fathers to basement workshops. During the course of the interview, he often asks himself the questions, answers them and comes back with his own follow-ups. One way in which he engages people in his collection is by spinning stories about what he wishes had happened, a distinct advantage that a nostalgia consultant enjoys over a museum curator.
Although Shear craves recognition for his efforts, he's reluctant to invite people whom, as he says, might not "get it," to see his collection. Especially women he is dating. They may not understand his enthusiasm for, say, hair spray or bathing caps. Take Collection 159: Vanity in America. On a high shelf is a stack of 1960s plastic bouffant wigs for little girls who wanted to look "just like mommy." Next to the wigs are several bathing caps (he owns 50) that appear to have grown out of a coral reef--one, an "Aqua Original Exclusive Mermaid Millinery Creation," has a platinum-blonde wig attached. Soon he's strutting around the living room in a Buck Rogersesque aluminum welder's helmet that is actually an E. Fredericks Hair and Scalp Treatment Vaporizer from a 1930s beauty parlor or, as Shear calls it, a compression chamber for an Art Deco lady.
The subject of hair inevitably triggers Shear's childhood regret of never having had the perfect 1950s flattop haircut. Flattops were as popular in the 1950s as jeans with rolled-up cuffs. "I wanted my hair to be as flat as an aircraft carrier. I used to jump around to barbers who had steady hands. I liked my flattop flat, not listing, and I'd tilt my head three degrees to compensate," he says with a laugh, waving a 1950s Miller "Level Head" flattop comb, complete with an attached carpenter's level. "It would have changed my life if I were the lucky user!"
Shear is a baseball card collector who actually chews the bubblegum. He buys from the gut, using his own criteria of value rather than consulting collecting guides or experts. (Ironically, it's the curators who often come to him for items.) He avoids auctions, preferring the thrill of the hunt. His collection comes largely from flea markets, garage sales and regional antiques stores. Although he once had to dip into his pension fund to buy an eight-foot-tall wooden roller skate for $4,000, most of the items are not costly. On the other hand, the uninitiated may find it odd to spend $10 on a 13-year-old box of Wheaties. But then again, not all collectors have a thing for gymnast Mary Lou Retton. "I like her perkiness. I like her can-do. I like her gold medal," Shear says, beaming. "She's an icon of the '80s." Shear's approach involves anywhere from 230 to 500 overlapping categories, depending on which day you ask. One category is electric lunch boxes (they worked like toaster ovens to make hot meals). Another is five-and-dime-store toys. Still another is roadside memorabilia.
When asked if his collection has ever been appraised, he seems a bit put off and responds, "Can you appraise Andy Warhol's eye?" Ever considered selling the collection to a collector or a museum? "Would the Smithsonian sell its archive?" he retorts.
Shear would never buy a repainted object or a reproduction. The surface must have integrity. It must be well designed, too, exhibiting common-sense ingenuity over technological prowess. Novelty items inspired by fads (such as 1950s vacuum cleaners in the shape of rockets) and products resulting from planned obsolescence give him a thrill. Humor, spontaneity, honesty and his sense of can-do are key. His shelves of Shaker-quality Depression art (funnels, lunch boxes, toys and musical instruments soldered out of used tin cans) reflect American resourcefulness in the face of poverty. His boutique "line" of obsession art handbags and wallets meticulously woven out of thousands of cigarette wrappers by prison inmates shows how the wastebasket, and lots of free time, can inspire art.
Shear never buys just a label, whether it's a designer shirt or a status car. He bought a 1972 Frank Gehry Easy Edges chair because it was constructed of corrugated cardboard, not because it was designed by a famous architect. He prefers what he calls factory folk art and finds standard folk art, such as weathervanes and quilts, respectable when they aren't "art directed," but boring. Nearly all of Shear's items are consumer-oriented and useful, even if they are absurd and silly.
"There's a gallery in everybody's home that displays this popular art," Shear says, referring specifically to a shelf of 500 popular brand radios that mirror grocery products. The transistor radios were promotional giveaways in the 1960s, '70s and '80s and turn his study into a virtual 7-Eleven. There are radio replicas of Hunt's Manwich sauce, Diamond Crystal Salt, Pepperidge Farm Stuffing, ScotTowels, Avon's Skin-So-Soft bath gel and Adolph's Meat Tenderizer, not to mention generic cheeseburgers, hot dogs and bananas. Then there are Heinz Ketchup flashlights and Hershey's Chocolate Milk telephones. "It's on the television set, it's in the pantry, at sporting events and picnics. You can't get away from this onslaught of consumer brands," he says.
When Shear kneels and opens a 1959 salesman's sample suitcase with a miniature Plexiglas-enclosed above-ground swimming pool, post-Levittown suburban life emerges. Here, in dollhouse size, is the swimming pool, the inflatable raft, the lawn, the topiary. A second case has a pull-down aluminum awning for a car port. A third one contains eight 1950s miniature AT&T phones in "new-fangled" colors. As Americans filled their suburban homes with gadgets, labor-saving appliances and convenience products, the door-to-door salesman, while inefficient, was not yet obsolete. The 50 salesman's sample cases in Shear's collection--13 of which feature above-ground swimming pools--reflect this golden age of consumerism.
Shear's mind wanders from the backyard pool parties to the frontyard aluminum car port, where there's a turquoise '57 Chevy convertible parked next to a 1950s ranch house. Without pausing for air, he dashes into his study and fumbles in the dark for a turquoise vinyl dinette chair. He drags the chair into the living room, plops into it and demonstrates how the kitchen became an extension of the automobile. "You went right from your Chevy into the kitchen and had dinner at the wheel," he explains. "All of your appliances enabled you to never leave your '57 Chevy. Mom was all dolled up to sit in the shotgun seat. Dad began to look like Elvis. Your entire life was ''57 Chevy'."
In the year 2000, Shear will turn 60. He was born in 1940 into a conservative Jewish home in rural Lancaster. His grandparents were Eastern European trade merchants who had immigrated through Ellis Island and instilled in the family a love for merchandising. As seven-year-olds, Shear and his twin brother, Ted, spent every Thursday night at the Lancaster city auctions, watching their mother, Sarah, buy china, glassware, and, of course, hat pin holders, and their father, Paul, buy old tools. However, Shear's early passion for Americana actually began in what was once an old brick cigar factory. (At the turn of the century, Lancaster was a major cigar-tobacco growing region.) Here, Paul Shear, a true fad forecaster, ran a wholesale warehouse that distributed toys and seasonal goods. Shear credits his passion for pop culture to growing up in a warehouse full of the latest crazes, such as the slender polyethylene tube that was all the rage in 1958--the Hula Hoop. A steady stream of yo-yos, early Shmoos from Lil' Abner, Betty Boop dolls and Flexible Flyer sleds fascinated the young Alex.
Aside from his baseball cards, Shear was never much of a collector as a child. His desire to collect would later come from a yen to recapture the thrill he felt as a teenager delivering The Lancaster New Era to the surrounding new suburbs on his Schwinn Panther. "I used to go into these suburban ranches and see this 'world of tomorrow,' " he says, referring to the excitement that he experienced as an outsider.
Still, the best way to know Shear is to accompany him to Lancaster and neighboring towns, a pilgrimage he makes at least twice a month to scout the flea markets and antiques shops.
We are in Shear's 1996 teal Chevy Astro on a buying trip that he calls "an icing-on-the-cake mission." He has no agenda, but Mafia memorabilia is on his mind. So are baby items. As we drive past green hills and lush Amish farms, he gestures with his hands for emphasis, sometimes lifting both hands off the wheel and waving them as if he were an orchestra conductor. His latest line is what he calls his Goo Goo Goo and Ga Ga Ga: A Celebration of the American Baby in the Twentieth Century. It started the previous weekend on a similar buying trip, when he landed a trophy from the 1938 Ocean City, New Jersey, Baby Contest. "It hit all the marks! It was a 10!" he says excitedly, letting the car drive itself for a spell. He points to a grain silo that has a weathered, hand-painted Cadillac 5-in-1 Dog Food advertisement on it, and it is clear that this also "hits all the marks."
By 10 a.m. we arrive at our first store in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, just as the manager opens the door and hangs out a flag that says Antiques. The nostalgia consultant faces the stucco facade and white lace curtains of this quasi-strip mall and says, "This is known as a scan. I will scan this place rapidly." He's off.
He knows every booth in detail from years of shopping here and pauses occasionally for a moment of silence to mourn the booths that have given way to "folk art creations"--stuffed-bear footstools, candles and papier-mâché fruit. He loathes the cloying smell of potpourri. He detests it when dealers "bow-and-gingham" everything, but he remains unfazed. Lately, the fields have been drying up, and it's become harder and harder for dealers to buy wares, prompting him to expand his range into West Virginia, Indiana and other parts of the Midwest. "Morgantown is picked," he says nostalgically, but you never know when "these ladies will empty a house and there may be a pink Mixmaster still in the original box. A lot of my Desert Storm memorabilia comes out of these places."
He makes his way through knicknacks and bric-a-brac, summing up the personality of the dealers by their displays like the armchair anthropologist he claims to be: "This booth is too researched"; "This lady has an unexciting eye"; "You don't want to go fishing in an aquarium." Finally, his eye zeroes in on a Handyhot Whipper for making meringue. "This country is totally immersed in whippers," he says with a sigh. He rocks on the balls of his feet, holding up the small precursor to the blender like Lady Liberty's torch. "No, it doesn't speak to me," he says. A 1940s whipper may be something most people would disregard, but to Shear, who owns 15 Sunbeam Mixmasters in every pastel, including his favorite '57 Chevy turquoise, the whipper speaks spades. He smiles widely, his eyes sparkle and his mind wanders to his mother's 1940s kitchen, where he licked icing out of the bowl.
The self-professed steward of American culture, perhaps naively, yearns for simpler times, when America's outward identity seemed less fractured than it does today--a world of bank tellers, not cash machines, human telephone operators and door-to-door salesmen. A boyish grin shines through the silver beard. At another booth, Shear files through a fruit crate of record albums until he sees The General Federation of Women's Clubs Presents the Songs America Loves. "This is America at its best," he says. "In America you can cut a record. In America you can do anything you want. I like ladies like this." He reads the entire jacket out loud, buys it and walks off with it under his arm.
Nearby, a fog horn sounds, followed by the cry of gulls and the crashing of waves. Shear walks into his favorite booth, a small space filled with old lobster traps and toy sailboats. "You get a feel for these ma-and-pa dealers," he says. "My pulse rate lowers in here. I relax here. I love this lady. She buys who she is. I like her through her stuff." He stretches out his arms and breathes in deeply as if he were on a beach inhaling the salt air. He points out items that reflect all the seasons--wooden water skis, picnic baskets, snow shoes. Then he appraises the booth with the eye of the JC Penney buyer he never really stopped being. To the right is the dealer's gardening department. To the left, her seashore department. He praises her extra effort--she has created the illusion of looking out of a window onto a rocky Maine coast by framing a seascape in an old white window frame.
"What would Sotheby's say of this?" Shear says at another booth, holding up a 1960s Lady Schick Consolette hair dryer. He admires the seductive form of the half-globe carrying case and the feminine script lettering of the logo: Consolette. "I love ladies and their vanity! This is American vanity, and it was manufactured in Lancaster, PA. For $10 how can you go wrong?"
As Shear makes his way out of the store, a hair dryer in his left hand, a record album under his right arm, he makes one last purchase--a pair of handmade wooden stilts (he already owns 20 pairs of stilts and 15 pogo sticks)--and proceeds to invent the grandfather who built them. By the time Shear climbs back into the Astro and heads for New York, it is 9:30 at night. He has visited all the significant sites of his life as if they, too, were part of his collection--the old toy warehouse, his mother's 1950s ranch house, his favorite antiques shops, the Lancaster New Era building, covered bridges, Amish farm stands. He even paid his respects to the soon-to-be-defunct original Woolworth's on the last day of its lunch counter. The nostalgia consultant has been on the road for 14 1/2 hours, but he continues to reminisce, pointing out old haunts. An Amish woman in a black bonnet climbs out of a horse-drawn carriage and walks into an enormous grocery store. Grain silos shine white in the headlights. Television sets glow from condos and farmhouses alike. A sign points right for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the quickest way back to New York. But the nostalgia consultant, his van full of treasures, wants to prolong the trip. He veers left and takes the back roads home. *
Melissa Milgrom writes about American subcultures and regionalism.
Shear America can be contacted at (212) 874-4768.
For Shear's collecting tips turn to page 333. Collecting Shearisms
Alex Shear's approach to collecting involves more than 230 categories. Here are some of our favorites (examples are from Shear's collection):
Can-do An American spirit piece, like a Million Man March T-shirt.
Make-do A useful object that was created out of necessity, such as a fishing lure hammered out of a railroad conductor's brass badge; a trench-art coffeepot made of spent artillery shells; a briefcase soldered out of used lighter fluid tins.
Factory Folk Art One-of-a-kind artifacts, like tin men, constructed of industrial grade materials, including scraps pulled off an assembly line.
Obsession Art /Waste Basket Art/Passions-in-Paper/Recycled Art Creations made from garbage: lamps made of glued Popsicle sticks, wallets woven out of cigarette packages, bubblegum wrapper chains, soda can pull-tab wreaths and matchstick houses.
They-Should-Have-Been-Designing-for-Detroit Art Wooden car models built by assembly-line workers in home workshops.
Precursor-to-the-First-Man-On-the-Moon Art Housewares inspired by rocketry and aviation; flying saucer coffeepots; tubular aluminum rocket-inspired sleds; Buck Rogersesque stainless steel hair dryers.
Twinkle-in-the-Eye Art Objects that make a statement in a humorous, mischievous or scathing way. For example, the 1995 board game "Squeeze the Juice: The Game Where Lawyers Get Rich and Justice Comes at a Hefty Price;" the Pet Wok in response to the Pet Rock; Vietnam War "theater art" denim jacket with an embroidered Snoopy wielding a machine gun.
By-Product Art Objects that appropriate materials, technology or designs from other industries, such as a 1950s Formica purse made by the Mica Purse Company, and a 1946 streamlined toaster with airplane-inspired evacuation chutes that eject toast, designed by aviation engineers who needed work after the war effort.
Recalls/Planned Obsolescence/Products That Didn't Sell Examples include package designs with misspelled graphics; experimental plastic Coke cans with aluminum tops; fragile ceramic toasters; a 1950s child's toothbrush in the shape of a .38-caliber pistol (the child had to insert the barrel of the gun into his mouth in order to brush).
Lost Their Luster Beyond retro; 1950s Coppertone Candi doll that is bronzed and scented; 1960s Krazee Hubs hubcaps with mod-daisy patterns for hippie vans; beauty parlor photos of beehive hairdos with names like Swirl High/Swing Low, Petite Whirl-A-Do, Flutter Coif and Little Miss Caper-Cap.
Knock-offs Items that infringe on or violate copyrights, trademarks and intellectual property (a.k.a. coat-tail riding; ambush marketing). Lite Saver candles and Lead Saver pencil sharpeners that knock off Life Savers' striped packaging. A Swiller beer lighter with a logo that mimics Miller beer.
Just Like Mommy/Just Like Daddy Toys that socialize children into gender roles, such as "The Bride Game: A Make-believe Game for Girls;" toy electric irons; the Kidd-E-Kar-Wash kit ("Shine 'em Up Like Dad Does! Wax! Polish! Clean!").
Tip-of-the-Hat Art Anything deemed worthy of praise. "I am my own Oscar committee and I give my own awards," says Shear.
HOW VALUABLE IS A PET ROCK?
As the third millennium nears, the criteria that distinguish an antique from a collectible tend to blur. The value of many postwar consumer artifacts won't be found in auction records, collecting guides or museums. How, then, do you determine the worth of what hasn't been defined?
* Condition, condition, condition. Items in excellent condition may cost more but are ultimately better investments. Pursue mint-in-the-box objects that contain all of the original parts. Integrity of surface texture is key.
* Be wary of fakes. As antiques and collectibles dwindle, reproductions increase. Know an item's history: the years it was produced; the colors, styles and technology available then; and the manufacturer's markings and logos.
* Go to shows and seek out knowledgeable dealers who use price to organize their wares. These prices will help you gauge the standard of that collectible.
* Forecast the collectibles of tomorrow. You don't need to rush to Toys "R" Us and buy a case of brand-new George Bush or Colin Powell dolls to stow away as an investment. However, reflecting upon trends and significant events of the twentieth century will help you determine the potential value of a current item. An event like the Desert Storm War was brief but significant. For this reason, the production cycle of commemorative items was also short. Ask: Was this a newsworthy event? How long was the production cycle of this item?
* Be an armchair anthropologist. Question what life was like in other eras and is like now for various American subcultures. Some collectors crave books on Abraham Lincoln. Others, like Shear, want to own his toothbrush. "What did they use for dental floss back then, horse hair?" he asks.
* Think design. (Shearism: "The visual part of stopping to smell the roses.") If you're a novice, Shear suggests sitting in every chair in your home to determine which chairs strike a balance between art and comfort.
* Go Roadside. Hop in your car and explore. Seek out garage sales and regional antiques shows, and buy what strikes your fancy. Imagine that the grocery store and your refrigerator are museums of popular culture.
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