Follow the Badge Lady

Badge Requirements

1. Start a collection or add to one you have already started.

2. Figure out a way to arrange your collection at home. Use scrapbooks, shelves, boxes, or whatever seems best for the collection.

3. Group or label the objects in your collection so they will be interesting to other people.

4. Choose three objects and write a display label for each telling such things as: Where you found it. Age of object. How it was made. Story about it.

5. Find out more about your collection in one of the following ways: Visit another collector to see his or her exhibit. Read books or magazines. Talk to someone who knows about what you are collecting.

6. Show your troop your newest addition and one of your favorite pieces in your collection.

7. Display your collection at a troop meeting or hobby show, or invite some troop members to see your collection at home.

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Childhood Re-Collections

I visit a toys and collectibles show for inspiration in starting a collection of my own.

In my family I was known as a pack rat because I liked to hold on to things, little mementos mostly, and keep them tucked away in drawers and boxes. “She never throws anything out,” my mother would say, looking with dismay at my messy bedroom. It’s not that I was anywhere near hoarder territory, mind you; I was a pack rat by comparison only. Somehow, I was the lone sentimental being living among a troop of ascetics.

Despite my propensity for saving, I’ve never had a true collection. I tried a couple of times over the years to get something going, but nothing took hold. When I was a kid I’d decided on matchbooks—souvenirs of my travels. The problem was I hardly ever went any place other than school, the park, and friends’ houses—none of which had custom match covers. I’d chosen the particular artifact because it was already established as a thing people collected, but it didn’t have any personal resonance for me and my collection fizzled out before it really began.

The matchbooks were followed by unicorns in my early adolescence. At that point in my life I spent a lot of my time at the mall with my two best friends. The three of us each decided to “specialize” in a certain item, which made shopping for ourselves more fun and also made gift-giving easier. (They picked pigs and jokers.) But the unicorns weren’t so much a collection as a decoration motif for my bedroom, and after a couple of years, this too faded.

Yet, I’m drawn to the idea of collecting. It’s like being on a permanent treasure hunt—the ever-present potential of a “great find” adds excitement to any outing. It’s also rewarding to watch one’s inventory of articles grow. Still, I’m not sure what will hold my interest. Nothing has announced itself thus far. So, in an attempt to figure out what kind of objects have meaning for me, I decided to check out other people’s collections for inspiration.

On the first Sunday in June, I drove to the Wayne, New Jersey, Toy and Collectibles Show with my partner, Tom, to see what sort of curios they have at New Jersey’s longest-running collectibles fair.

Tom, I’ve been happy to discover, will always go with me wherever I want to go. He’s just like that. (I, on the other hand, am not like that; I only go with him if he’s going somewhere interesting or else I’ll agree to go but make it clear it is only out of obligation). This event, however, happened to have special appeal for him. “Oh, they’ll have comics!” he said. “Sure, I’ll go.”  

Set up in an old firehouse, the show featured about 50 vendors, each with a table for their own particular collections: matchbox cars, B movies, pulp fiction paperbacks, monster movie fanzines, board games, assorted toys, vintage “girly” magazines, comic books, transformers, and a preponderance of Star Wars figurines. The turnout was low, apparently due to another, larger toy fair being held in Philadelphia that weekend. Most everyone there was male.

The predicted comic book collection was near the front of the room, and we lingered there for few a minutes. They had all the usual Marvel and DC comics: Spiderman, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Superman, Batman, and so on—exactly the assortment of interest to Tom, many of which he has squirreled away in his parents’ attic in their house on Long Island. But surprisingly, he didn’t want to stay at the table long. “They don’t like you to stand there and read them and not buy anything,” he said. So, we kept moving until we happened upon a plastic toy scuba diver Tom had had as child. He picked it up and started describing how it worked and immediately two vendors rushed over to listen. Its history was unknown to its owner and he and his colleague were eager to gather intelligence. Apparently the two-foot diver was supposed to be propelled by an electric motor that should have been housed in the scuba tanks, though this particular diver was missing his gear.

“That was junk,” Tom said when we were out of earshot of the vendor. “Mine’s in much better condition.” Along with his comic book collection, many of his childhood toys are still in storage in his parents’ attic. Perhaps a trip to the familial home would turn up just as many treasures as we were finding at the toy fair, because the next item to catch Tom’s eye was a set of Horror of War trading cards like the ones his father had saved from his childhood and which were also residing in the Long Island attic.

This particular set, which depicted scenes from the Rape of Nanking, were part of a larger collection of World War II cards. We stopped and discussed the strangeness of the cards—why scenes such as a Japanese soldier piercing a Chinese soldier on his bayonet or two severed hands gripping the steering wheel of a bombed-out jeep would have been marketed to children. No one could give us a satisfactory answer, but brutality aside, we wanted to know how much the cards were worth. A full set was ideal, and the better the condition, the better the price, but the vendor quoted a rough figure of $10 per card, which, as someone in the collectibles business, he recognized as a good, fair price. To us, the amount was disappointingly low. We were like two Antiques Roadshow hopefuls, wishing to have stumbled across something of immense value. We were dreaming for the kind of money that can make an impact on your life.

The vendor asked Tom if his father would want to sell his horror cards, but Tom declined, knowing that his father wouldn’t want to part with his childhood collection for a few hundred bucks. It didn’t matter that they were reminders of some of the worst atrocities perpetrated by humans on each other, the set of cards had been in Tom’s father’s possession since he was a small boy and therefore were reminders of his long-ago childhood.

Next, we visited a table filled with board games and figurines from the 1970s, many based on the decade’s television shows, such as Welcome Back Kotter, Charlie’s Angels, and the Six Million Dollar Man. These were the shows of my era but not Tom’s. The games held no interest for him. “Do you have slot cars?” he asked hopefully. The vendor was sorry to say he didn’t have any slot cars, as, like Tom, he’d also spent many fun afternoons in his boyhood playing with the toy. The vendor described how he used to run his slot cars too fast so they would go flying off the track and ding his mother’s furniture. “‘That’s it,’ she would say. ‘No more slot cars, you’re getting a sweater for Hanukkah.’”

There was a game on the table called Bermuda Triangle that the vendor fondly recalled fighting over with his sister. And then there were the figurines and lunch boxes featuring Evil Knievil, a childhood hero for the vendor – perhaps the renegade influence that inspired him to drive his slot cars at furniture-damaging speed.

The games, the Hanukkah sweaters, Evil Knievil, fighting with his sister were all part of this man’s childhood in Astoria, Queens, which he spoke of with longing. A reluctant transplant to the New Jersey suburbs, he still made pilgrimages back to the old neighborhood for dinner at his favorite Greek restaurants. 

Even though the TV icons were from my era, I’d never played any of the board games on the table, and maybe that’s why they didn’t interest me much. Perhaps if I’d seen Clue or Password, I would have gotten excited and launched into my own stories of playing these games after dinner with my family, and how, just as we’d had our particular seats at the dinner table, we also stuck to the same Clue characters each time we played. (I was Professor Plum, my sister Miss Scarlet, my brother Col. Mustard, my mother Mrs. Peacock, and my father Mr. Green.)

We paused at the 1970s celebrity buttons, breezed past the Star Wars tables, and for our final stop, we visited a husband and wife team with a collection of Disney tin tea sets. The husband was positioned behind the table and did most of the talking, while the wife stood off to the side. They appeared to be in their late sixties, and it struck me as odd that a male senior citizen would be interested in little girls’ play tea sets. But as he told us about his wares, it became apparent what had drawn him in.

Manufactured in the 1930s and 1940s by the Ohio Art Company, the tea sets were examples of a quality American-made product, from an era when materials and craftsmanship mattered. The husband spoke disparagingly about today’s toys made overseas from cheap plastics that don’t last, an emphasis on quantity not quality. “Look at the graphics on this,” he said, holding up a Three Little Pigs teapot with a meticulously rendered wolf, cheeks dangerously puffed up with air.

I was beginning to sense a theme at the Toys and Collectibles Show. Everyone here had latched on to objects that reminded them of a time from their past that they treasured and missed. For the tea-set collector it was old America, when goods were manufactured in this country with artistry and quality. The Queens board games vendor was transporting himself back to when he used to play with youthful abandon. Even Tom had gotten into the mood, searching for toys he used to own, so he could reminisce about his early life.  

And wasn’t I really doing the same thing? Not with a collection of objects, but with my return to my Girl Scout handbook—trying to recapture that idyllic point in my life when everything seemed much simpler and there was so much time devoted to play.

The tea-set couple asked us if we were collectors.

“No,” we admitted. “We just thought it would be fun to come and check it out.”

“It’s a good hobby,” the husband said. “And you have something of value.” He explained that full sets—teacups, saucers, plates, tea pot—are worth more than individual pieces. He picked up a lone Pinocchio teacup from his table. “Here’s your first piece,” he said and handed it to me. It’s a little beat-up but the quality craftsmanship is evident. The tin has retained its shape, and other than a little wear along the rim, the paint is well-preserved. The exterior is decorated with Pinocchio, Figaro the cat, the Blue Fairy, and Jiminy Cricket—all pristine except for Jiminy who’s partially worn away.

It was nice to leave the event with something in hand, but the trip hadn’t furthered my quest. I still didn’t know what I wanted to collect. The Disney dishes weren’t it—that’s someone else’s preference. But I like thinking about the history, imagining the little girl who handed her doll this brand-new tin cup for a pretend tea party in the 1930s, and now here it is 80 years later, sitting on my bookshelf in Brooklyn, a memento of a day I spent as a 45-year-old Girl Scout, exploring childhood toy collections in a New Jersey firehouse. 25 June 2012