Here’s to the antique misfits

At first they looked like elaborate toothpicks or something from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. They were all different shapes and sizes and – one was even in the shape of a hand, while others were decorated with elaborate carvings.
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The curiosities were part of a diverse collection of bride sticks. The 100 or so sticks are a part of the famous Joseph and Lilian Shapiro Collection, and featured in an Oct. 8 Dan Morphy auction. Skillfully hand-carved and painted, the rarely seen decorative objects date from the early 19th century to around the turn of the 20th century. Each was a custom design, to be given as a gift to a new bride. While not meant for practical use, they replicate the plainer forked sticks that women used for pushing down laundry into tubs of boiling water.

It’s the offbeat and obscure items, such as the Shapiros’ bride sticks, that are my favorite part of learning about antiques. Usually, the items are not particularly valuable; the bride sticks are expected to sell for between $50 and $100 each. Don’t get me wrong, I have a strong appreciation of antique furniture, prints, coin operated machines and advertising. However, there’s just something alluring (maybe even charming) about those oddball items most people don’t much care for.

Much to the dismay of my wife, my wallet seems to be a magnet for these misfit antiques. On a recent shopping trip, I spotted a curious machine in a vendor’s booth: it was cast iron and sported seven different pulleys.

“It kind of looks like a circus wagon,” I told my wife, both describing its original paint and doing my best to get her remotely interested in yet another of my weird purchases – this one even larger than usual. The seller told me it was a hay trolley. They were used in the time before elevators to lift bailed or loose hay up into barn lofts. The trolleys are large, weighing about 35 pounds and are sometimes decorated with ornate cast iron.

They are offbeat, for sure, but are gaining some respect. A few farming museums devoted to antique farming technology have recently opened in the Midwest and all feature the decorative and trusty hay trolley. The one I found has a new home as a sculpture on our kitchen desk, which for us is really the base of a Hoosier cupboard.

Learning about new things is the most important benefit of being a collector. Everyone who ventures out in search of antiques always brings their curiosity. Expanding your experience of the rich and diverse world of antiques helps you better spend your money. Plus it’s also a neat trick whenever you can pull a little-known fact out of your noggin at precisely the right time.

So go out and look for those unusual items no one else seems to notice. Just remember, it helps to decide where you’re going to put your misfit before you bring it up to your spouse.

— posted by Eric Bradley

From Sept. 30, 2009 issue of Antique Trader magazine

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