History Beyond the Academy: Collecting and Restoration

Today a second set of Senior Seminar reflections on how Americans engage in the practice of history outside of the academy. Our first pair of students wrote on historical reenactors; today’s three focus on physical objects and how they’re restored or collected: Nic Carlson (’13) on restoring cars and houses; Michaela Anderson (’13) on antique stores, and Bjorn Olson (’13) on coin collecting.

Car and house restoration is a method of “doing” non-professional history. An example of its importance can be found in my own life:

My great-grandfather bought a 1906 Cadillac during the Depression, and over generations it has slowly come back to life. Not only has it given history a tangible feel, but it, among other restorations, has given me a way to interact with the same piece of history as my dad, grandpa, and even great-grandpa. Restorations take the focus off of the paper, and they force you to interact with the past and discover more in a less eye-straining (but more expensive) way.

– Nic Carlson
(last year we interviewed Nic about his semester in Prague, for our series on studying abroad)

An example of Red Wing pottery - Minnesota Historical Society
An example of Red Wing pottery – Minnesota Historical Society

When shopping at an antique store or estate sale, you come across many unfamiliar things from the past that are no longer around in the present culture. There are different kitchen utensils or different products that are uncovered that reveal how life was lived at a different time. When you look at something like Red Wing crocks, for example. They used to be used to preserve or make food; due to refrigerators and electronic gadgets we no longer use many of them for their original purpose.

Though we don’t use them, we still find value in them. Whether it be to show how trendy and into old, vintage things we are or that we want to preserve the past through keeping and appreciating where we came from. Many buy an object from the past because it had once been in their grandma’s home and she used it for making Christmas dinners. Others just find the object interesting and want to repurpose it for a present-day use. The objects in these stores tell a history; they explain the everyday lives of those before us and then we use them to create our own history.

– Michaela Anderson

Coin collecting is a form of non-academic history in which I participate to a fair extent. In this the coins not only hold value because of the metal that is included but also in the date, mintage, and location where the coin was produced. Really old coins are not necessarily worth more due to their age. A lot has to do with events going on at the time that makes the coin valuable. It is a way of getting a hold of the past and using the coin (and its picture, design, and condition) to tell you about the time from which it comes. You can tell a lot about a country based on its dirty old penny.

– Bjorn Olson
(earlier this spring for Senior Sem, Bjorn wrote for us about the connections between history and individual and collective identity)

<<Read the first entry in this series                     Read the next entry in this series>>

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