The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego Historical Society Quarterly
July 1959, Volume 5, Number 3
Jerry Macmullen, Editor
By H. K. Raymenton
Seventy-five or more years ago the art dealers of Japan, when purchasing a collection of paintings, ceramics and textiles, occasionally had to accept a stack of wood-block color prints. As these were popular art and unworthy of serious consideration the dealers burned them. Their sons learned with dismay that countless Hiroshiges, Hokusais and Utomaros, whose works would have made them rich, had been lost forever.
At about the same time as the print burning an eccentric Parisian went about the city with a box camera and glass plates photographing things nobody else ever thought of photographing, hydrants, light standards, trash cans, things like that. After his death his children, who considered Papa crazy, always intended to destroy the contents of those old boxes but never got around to it. His grandchildren, in 1927, sold the contents to the Archives Nationales for a million francs, about $40,000 at that time. They have been invaluable to artists, historians and the makers of moving pictures.
Those of us who are old enough can remember when California was famous for the smallness of its matches and the bigness of its lies. Fifty or sixty years ago California sulphur matches were tiny and came in cubes instead of sheets, as elsewhere. When all the matches in the cube had been used the remaining wooden square was thrown away. One of those cubes of matches would be worth nearly its weight in gold today.
During a lifetime of seventy-five years a person has spent thousands of pennies. If he had saved only a hundred of each date during that time he could now have as many dollars as he had pennies, should he sell them to a numismatist.
When I was a boy I, and other 19th century juvenile delinquents, spent our now-so-valuable pennies on dime novels with lurid covers, novels that came in series, Diamond Dick, Old King Brady, Buffalo Bill, Work and Win, Pluck and Luck and others. These were passed from hand to hand, read to tatters, and then disposed of before our parents could find them. Why our parents should have objected to them would be a present day mystery. The writing was almost mawkishly pure, the Good Guys were very good, the Bad Guys, not so bad, and the novels themselves were much less sanguinary than Dick Tracy or Little Orphan Annie of today’s “comic” strips. Our parents would have done better to buy copies and lay them by as a heritage for us, for certain bibliophiles now pay fantastic prices for them.
We are surrounded by valuable historical objects, and every day we toss many of them heedlessly away. The antiquarians of the future will curse us, but we now have no way of judging their importance. We would have to wait a century to find out, and not many of us have that life expectancy. We can, however, begin to save a few things that are already becoming difficult to find readily in the stores, a sign of obsolescence. Nails, for example, are now generally sold in paper cartons instead of kegs, and a nail keg will probably be a historical object in fifty years. A hand auger is another. It may be that many things now made of metal and glass, such as tooth paste tubes and bottles, will be replaced by plastics before long. Few people now have attics and cellars where things used to be squirrelled away but a little storage space can usually be found. The Director of the Serra Museum in the year 2000 may be grateful for some of these antiques of the future.