Years ago I owned a vintage clothing business. Every Friday morning I hit estate sales looking for charming pieces of pre-worn clothing I could repair, launder, and market. With fellow entrepreneurs and wacky die-hard collectors, I waited hours in line before dawn for a snapshot of 20th century America.
Estate sale culture is odd. You spend every week standing in line next to the same bizarre cast of characters on Friday mornings and yet you rarely speak to them. For years, I nodded at the same people gathered outside old houses in the rain, and even snow, waiting for hundreds of different doors to open.
Inside a complete stranger's house you encounter the most intimate details of a person's life: her undergarments, her toiletries, perhaps photographs and even diaries. Each house is like a tiny museum of 20th century life.
1950s Lucite Heel Spring-O-Lator
One particular morning I followed my printed directions to the Richmond Highlands neighborhood several miles north of Seattle. It occurred to me that my maternal grandmother lived in this neighborhood in the 1930s. Grandma's family had traveled from Indiana living in camps and Hoovervilles, desperately trying to escape the poverty and hunger of the Great Depression. They moved across the vast American West with three adults and at least a half dozen children occupying one automobile. Each child was allowed to keep only the possessions she could hold in a lap.
Eventually the family settled deep in the old growth timber north of Seattle. My great grandfather hand built a small cabin where his large family could eke a living. Grandma recalls having little in the way of material possessions there. Sorrow marks her face today as she tells my daughter about the single precious doll she owned, which she had to leave behind in the Midwest.
Three of Grandma's siblings, 1930s
By midcentury my grandmother's family had long since left Richmond Highlands, and the area was booming in postwar housing. Into one of these developments on a frigid winter morning, I maneuvered my old Jeep to a dark cul-de-sac. The street was full of 1960s era houses in various states of disrepair.
Neighborhoods in western Washington don't fade so much as they molder. Houses in gullies seem particularly vulnerable to this reclamation-by-dank. This estate sale was at a house at the bottom of a long, winding street whose maintenance had been long deferred. I pulled on my hat and gloves and took my place in line with the other early-birds.
A cranky antique dealer later emerged from the main house and snapped at us that she would allow early entry for ten people into outbuildings only. I wasn't much interested in vintage textiles stored in a damp shed, but I pulled my coat tighter and dutifully ambled over to a garage structure. The door swung open and single file we entered a dark, musty rectangular room. It was bordered by tables piled high with old tools and camping equipment.
Morning light peeked through the old wooden slats and I had eased a few feet into the shed when the air next to me was punctured by a shriek. A woman in her mid 50s wearing worn blue fleece and heavy logging boots was crawling backward on the floor jerking a large box out from underneath one of the tables. A long braid of grey hair hung down her back.
One part of the allure of the collectibles business is that it is literally a treasure hunt. A brisk and silent search through a stranger's possessions might yield something extremely valuable or a real piece of history. How people live is perennially fascinating for the anthropologist in my heart.
There is a set of hard, unspoken cultural rules to which everyone silently adheres. One of these rules: never inspect too closely someone else's box of items. This behavior is perceived as acquisitive by definition.
A sneaky glance across the musty garage on that cold morning years ago told me the excited woman had located a box of carved duck decoys. I could see they were handmade and likely early 20th century.
Decoys are highly desirable, especially the old and handmade type, and can be quite valuable. But duck decoys weren't interesting to me and I continued to mosey through the room, cold hands shoved in pockets, killing time until the interior portion of the sale opened.
Plush Mod Era Big Collar & Cuffs Belted Coat
About 20 or 30 seconds had passed and another voice shrieked "Wow!" from under a large bench in the back of the garage. "Look at these old DECOYS!" a woman hissed to her scraggly, cigarette smoking comrade. He grabbed the box she handed him while she frantically crawled on all fours, searching for another box.
I stood there idly trying to fathom how two separate boxes of rare handmade duck decoys could be in one sale when the mood in the room quickly turned. Angry voices raised above the small crowd and salegoers began moving backward from the doorway.
I realized that the box of decoys into which I initially glanced contained only duck heads. The woman holding the decoy duck heads was confronted by a second woman, flanked by Scraggly Comrade. The second woman was unbelievably holding an entire box of rare, early 20th century, hand painted duck bottoms. There was not a head in sight in the box with which one could make a full decoy.
Unfortunate 1970s Vinyl Faux Patchwork Bag
The two women approached each other warily at the opening to the musty, frigid garage. Morning light was full now, and I could see angry features as their initial demands to one another turned to yelling.
Suddenly one of the women, clutching her box of useless wooden parts, kicked the other woman hard in the leg with a heavy booted foot. The kicked woman wailed and reached out and grabbed the other woman's hair braid and yanked it hard.
Within a slow-motion second, the women grabbed for each other, screaming into some perverse physical embrace. They were now in a full brawl, punching each other and jerking handfuls of hair, clothing and skin.
A couple of bystanders pulled the two bloodied and sobbing women apart.
1920s Wedding Veil Cloche with Wax Beads
We were frozen with shock for a full minute or two. An unanswered ridiculous question hovered in the air between us--why the hell couldn't those two work out the obvious solution?
My mind flitted quickly to the long-dead man who spent so many hours painstakingly crafting the decoys as the two shaken women were escorted to their cars. I looked to see the estate dealer peeking from the front curtains of the house and she waved us over.
We followed each other across the moss covered front lawn, stepping over the unclaimed duck parts on the soggy ground.