Postcard Collector: Recycling For the ages

If our family had a crest, the motto would be: I might need it some day.
When we closed my father’s drug store, the basement – with its low ceiling and dark, spooky recesses – was packed with artifacts: old display cases, outdated medicines, bottles, soda fountain dishes and things that defied classification. Some dated back to the store’s original nineteenth century owner, including a huge contraption for bundling newspapers.

My grandfather not only had a grocery store full of "might-needs," he had an attic and cellar at home with enough "good stuff" to stock an antiques shop today. The word "recycle" wasn’t used then, but collectors today owe a tremendous debt to the hoarders and savers of the past who saw potential usefulness in the debris of everyday life.

My own collection began with postcards from servicemen during World War II that my father had stuffed into a roll-top desk in the back room of his store. He had no interest in "collecting" them, but he knew someone would want them some day.

postcard2.jpgSome packrats aren’t content just stashing discards. Recycling trash has become an art, fueling folk art, assemblage art, collage and other creative forms. No surprise, it’s a fascinating topic to collect on postcards.

Lindbergh’s picture is framed above a newspaper desk showing the headlines of his historic flight to Paris in 1927. It was one of the furnishing made for a paper house by Elis Stenman.

The list of discards that have been utilized for either practical objects or art is huge. Consider clock parts, clothing buttons, soda tabs, bottle caps, cigar boxes, plastic bags, scrap metal, used foil, smashed china and old clothing to mention only a few. All have made their way onto the art scene, some with delightful results. Postcards publicizing art shows are a good source, but art from found objects has also made its way into museums.

The Cadillac Ranch is an entertaining example. Ten junked Cadillac’s were planted in a field off Highway 66 west of Amarillo, Texas, turning autos bound for the junk yard into art.

Who hasn’t passed a yard decorated with hundreds of hubcaps, some on the way to being highly valued collectibles? Most ambitious of all are houses made of ordinary discards. A surprising number of buildings were made with bottles as the main material. Miners in Nevada made them from readily available whiskey bottles. In 1941 John Hope, a pharmacist in Virginia, had a playhouse built for his daughter from used medicine and wine bottles. A 62 year old grandma in Simi Valley California built 33 structures to display her collections using bottles she found at the town dump.

In widely scattered places, beginning as early as 1902, people have cemented discarded bottles together to make unusual and usable buildings. Some of these creations, notably the Hope playhouse and a house of bottles at Knott’s Berry Farm, became tourist attractions. Others were destroyed to make the land available for other purposes, and all but one of the postcard1.jpgSimi Valley bottle buildings were destroyed by an earthquake.

The Virginia pharmacist who built it called this playhouse "The House of a Thousand Headaches" because so many medicine bottles were used.

Bottle houses were mainly a North American phenomena with examples as far north as British Columbia and as far south as North Carolina. A few have showed up on postcards, rather unique reminders of early recyclers.

Glass can survive for many centuries, so there’s a logic for using it as a building material, but what about paper? In 1924 Elis Stenman, a mechanical engineer who designed a machine to manufacture paper clips, made a hobby of building a house of newspapers. He started with a wooden frame, floor, and roof, originally intending to use newspaper only as insulation. Glued and varnished papers seemed so durable, he never put any siding on the outside. Instead he went on to make paper the primary building material for both house and furnishings, including a newspaper piano. His crowning achievement was a desk made from issues covering Lindbergh’s flight to Paris in 1927. Located in Pigeon Cove, Mass., the structure was used as a summer home until 1930, postcard3.jpgwhen it opened to the public for a small admission fee. It still stands and can be seen.

Mr. and Mrs. Stenman in their paper house. Even the fireplace is paper except for a brick fire box and hearth. Note the tall case paper clock on the right.

Recycling is essential to the future of the earth, but thrifty forefathers had it right. You never know what you might be able to use someday.