For the last year I lived in Providence and for all the years I lived in Boston I got up insanely early nearly every Sunday morning and went to the flea market in Norton Massachusetts. Whenever I traveled I would check out the local flea markets. There was no weekly flea market equivalent when I moved to Minnesota, although there were far more estate sales which are a bit different but equally compelling. In general, the glory era of the flea market is long past, I believe, but I still go to a few every year and I still have a good time. The annual flea market in Oronoco may even be as big as ever, but I wouldn't swear to it.
In the early days I went to flea markets ostensibly to put together my set of Fiesta dinnerware (a process that is still ongoing), although I probably picked up more pieces by mail from dealers who advertised in "The Depression Daze' (a monthly newsletter about Depression glass, which was quite the cultural oddity). But that was the excuse, what I had in my head. Mostly I went to look at interesting old things, and to buy them when they caught my fancy and cost only a few bucks. Here are the sorts of things I bought regularly:
- Vintage ties from the 1940s
- Old postcards
- Old magazines, from the first half of the 20th century
- Odd books
- Vintage clothing, some of which went back to the 19th century. Only last year I gave a big box of this clothing to my young friends Lolo and Smack, who are theater boys who know their costuming. This was my admission that none of these things -- 19th century waistcoats, cutaway tuxedos, antique dress shirts, spats -- would ever fit me again (well, maybe the spats). Years ago I gave about two dozen of my best 1950s vintage shirts to my sister-in-law, since I will never be able to button a size medium again. Oh, some of those shirts were amazing: rayon plaids of orange and grey, textured black rayon, modernistic prints on cotton.
- Various pieces of depression era dinnerware, of china and glass
- Old linens: tablecloths, napkins
- Lots of records: LPs, 45s, 78s. In the late seventies I could find these sometimes as cheaply as 10 cents and regularly for quarters. Come to think of it, you can find LPs at garage sales for giveaway prices these days again.
Honestly, I didn't spend a lot of money. I didn't have a lot of money.
So what am I hoping to find tomorrow? What am I expecting to find tomorrow? I don't know. That's part of the joy. I spend a lot of time finding things that I believe are just perfect items for various people I know. Often I buy something certain that I will someday know who it is for -- I bought some 1950s chemistry sets years before I even met Ironman Matt, but I definitely bought those sets for him. That's how the Steven Flea Market Distribution scheme works. If you come to my apartment and you take admiring note of some odd thing -- a set of vases with George and Martha Washington's image on them, for example -- and there's something in your tone that makes me think you aren't just being polite but when you say, "Where did you GET this?" you are saying that you'd love to own it, then I will give it to you then and there. "You can't just give this away!" people say, and I reply, "Of course I can." There are very few things I own for which this is not true. What I love, what I really love, is the finding, and that's why I'm excited about tomorrow's excursion.
Here are some things I have found at Oronoco in the past:
- A commemorative plate from the 1958 dinner of the Minneapolis Escoffier society, with the menu and wines printed on the plate. I bought this for a foodie friend. The plate cost me a dollar. The postage to send it to my friend cost me eight.
- A scrapbook of every Christmas and birthday and miscellaneous card one particular man received between 1938 and 1952. The scrapbook itself was disintegrating, so I salvaged the cards from which I have made other cards. The notes on the cards told a story of a man who grew increasingly isolated with the years. The saddest thing was that every year on his birthday his own parents sent him the IDENTICAL "happy birthday to a fine son" card.
- Lots of Fiestaware and interesting related 1930s dinnerware lines, of course. That's probably the largest category.
- Postcards postcards postcards
- Piles and piles of magazines, which I have lately started to cut up to make my art cards. Plus 1950s elementary school science books and 1920s elementary school Hygiene books which I also use to make my art cards.
That's just a taste.
There's lots of things I'm always looking out for. Hundred+-year-old photographs of people standing in front of their house, which my father likes. Medium blue kitchenware, which was popular from the late 30s through the late 40s, which my sister-in-law likes. Certain patterns of depression glass and dinnerware. Interesting silverplate flatware. Paper ephemera of early country musicians, for one of my brothers -- from when the music was called "Hillbilly"; there are songbooks and promotional photos and magazines and the like, although I'm not sure what's left that we haven't already found between the two of us over the last quarter-century. More ties, postcards, magazines, odd books.
This is definitely a rarefied form of an atavistic hoarding instinct, although I doubt you could call it consumerism. So the rest of you folks can buy your iPhones; I'll buy another 1940s Bettty Crocker iron.