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Trash and Treasure

Nearly all that is now treasure was trash once upon a time. I happened upon an article about the used radio vendors of Cortlandt Street in 1932 New York. Nineteen thirties Cortlandt Street would seem to be a dream world for those of us who collect 1920s radios. The pace of technology had been swift. Radios that were kings of the hill a few years before were now relics. Stacks of the finest of 1925 were available on the sidewalk for 25 cents each. Nicer ones were 50 cents to a couple of dollars. Pre-World War I wireless devices were still available new in the box for those with some loose change.

What a fine deal. But 1932 was during the dark depths of the Great Depression, and after all, those radios were just junk. They would continue to be junk for a few more decades before they were novel enough to save from the trash pile.

All collectables go through that decent into trash-dom. In the mid 1970s I met with a man who had collected early horned phonographs for many of his 60 or 70 years. He told me about an experience he had as a boy in the mid 1920s. He knew the owner of a furniture store in Shreveport, Louisiana. The man invited him to view a problem occupying much of his second floor warehouse. The entire upper floor of the store was filled with now-rare phonographs from the earliest horned models to more recent Victrolas. By 1925 radios had eclipsed interest in phonographs and radio dealers offered to take these relics in trade. Warehouses like this one in Shreveport began to fill. My friend’s guide said, “What shall I do with all these? I’m going to send them to the dump—they have no value.” So many rare and not so rare machines went to their end, eventually driving up the value of those that survived. Even so, those phonographs were still not considered collectable for another 30 to 40 years.

I have a friend now who collects old telephones. He has been retired for a number of years. He still remembers with a wince when he as a young telephone company employee decommissioned an obsolete telephone system using fine old wooden wall phones and candlestick table phones. He remembers breaking the wooden cases apart with an ax to more quickly salvage the iron magneto magnets. My father (also a retired telephone company employee) can tell stories of the decommissioning of old open-wire pole lines. The now-collectable glass insulators were used to fill up the holes left when the poles were pulled up.

And of course, it goes on today. With the popularity and dropping prices of flat screen TVs, I as well as many friends have been retiring nice, large, working picture-tube-type TVs. I have found that if you give them away for free it still is pretty hard to get someone to take one—even teenagers without jobs! Ah, 50 years from now the collectors will grimace!

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