That particular Saturday was the right Saturday of the month in June of 1978 and I was at the Fairfield, Alabama, flea market, once the glorious location of the Alabama State Fair. Fairfield is not hard to find; just follow US 11 through Bessemer and there you are. If you go too far you'll end up on 1st Avenue North in Birmingham.
This monthly flea market was not one of those pretty outdoor affairs like you see on the treasure hunt shows on BBC and HGTV; it was held in a large dirty building where dealers or anyone else who wanted pay the fee would bring their smalls to display on old tables covered mostly in sheets.
When I say that the dealers brought smalls, I say so with no exaggeration. The 1970's and 1980's were a time when people who liked antiques ( including myself) were doing what I call collecting collections. Some dealers sold nothing but depression glass; others were selling figurines; others sold old paper ephemerae.
Today's young antique enthusiast may find it hard to believe that some sellers back then could bring in a hundred dollars on a good weekend by selling only picture postcards, prints, and boxes of old letters and magazines. Or that there were buyers who wanted only salt and pepper shakers, or teapots, or anything marked Made in Occupied Japan that wasn't chipped.
Today the decorating magazines forbid anyone to display such clutter. If you have some sort of collection you certainly don't put it out for anyone to see. The same thing is going on with antique oak furniture. At our shop, oak has been "out " for a decade. We sell plenty of mahagony and walnut and pine, but very few people come in looking for anything from the Golden Oak era in America.
But know this: when Martha puts oak pieces in her magazine, the prices will skyrocket. She already proved this when she used Jadite in her kitchen shots. The price tripled overnight.
So, I was there at the Fairfield flea market on that particular Saturday, looking through boxes of photographs for my collection, lots of photographs of everyday Americans staring at the camera. Cdv's ( carte-de-visite's: little rectangular photographs from the 1860's ) and Cabinet Cards ( larger hard backed pictures from the 1870s to the 1890's ) were selling for about a quarter each. Tintypes ( which the advanced collectors call ferrotypes) were about the same price.
I would pick out a good stack of the most interesting people, and if lucky, would find one or two photos actually taken outside of houses or barns, or , if I was really lucky, a buggy or wagon with horses or mules.
One of the cdv's which caught my attention was of a building with carriages and soldiers standing around. The back of the photo had the photographer listed as being in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I really wasn't interested in foreign pictures much, but there was a line of carriages with horses and the cdv looked to be early 1860's, so I put it in the buy stack. The back had a pencil notation which read "Admiralty House." Sounded like a hotel to me. I paid the guy for my stack ( total not over $5 : big money then) and went home happy as usual.
Now we leave 1978 and fast forward ( I hate saying that) to the present, thirty-something years later. I am going through my collections ( They aren't on display of course: that's against the rules) and I find this stack of cdv's and the Admiralty House picture.
I have my computer and I know all about google, so I type in Admiralty House. What is this? Admiralty House is not a hotel after all, but a well known Canadian national Maritime Museum , and is still standing. The web site has some old photographs , but their's are only back to the 1880's. Mine is 1860's.
Now comes the question: Do I do the sensible thing and let them know about the picture, and that it is for sale on ebay , or do I once again play my role as the country gentleman and offer the photograph as a donation and get the satisfaction of thinking of myself as a patron of the arts? Well, as habits are, I went with the patron thing.
Now the fact that I had paid a quarter for it in the 1970's has nothing to do with it. While most people my age back then were out doing the hustle and dancing to YMCA at the disco, I was climbing under plantation houses to look at floor joists and digging through flea markets and going to estate sales buying what my father called junk. I preferred to do that then, and prefer to do that now.
This is not a whine about how I missed out on all the fun of disco days. This is a little dig at having the satisfaction of knowing today that I was right and he was , well, somewhat mistaken. Anyway, he long ago changed his mind about my antiquing when he saw that I was making money at it.
I wrote the Admiralty House people a short email.
Dear Staff, I have a cdv photograph of Admiralty House taken about 1860. I see from your web site that your earliest photograph of the museum is from the 1880's, so I believe this photo would be of historical importance. I would like to donate the photograph to the museum, but would like the address of a specific person there who would be kind enough to email me when it safely arrives. Thank you.
I got a response almost immediatly from Mr. Sanderson, the acting director, giving me his address and expressing great interest in the photograph. I figured that if someone who was in charge of a national museum could take the time to write me so quickly and give me just that little bit of attention I wanted ( as a country gentleman and patron of the arts) , that I should waste no time in mailing the little gem to Canada.
I composed a carefully worded ( and I guess wordy ) letter and enclosed it with the cdv. It said:
Dear Mr. Sanderson,
Here for your collection of artifacts is an original photograph cdv of Admiralty House. I estimate the photograph, being a cdv, would have been taken sometime between 1860 and 1868. I see from your web site that this will now be the earliest known photograph of your museum.
The quickness of your reply to my email let me know that you were on top of things up there and could be trusted with the original as a gift.
I hope your web person can post this photograph on the web site, which would give me great pleasure. You might even generate a bit of publicity by treating this as historical news, " Earliest known photograph of Admiralty House found in an Alabama antique flea market" or " 150 year old photograph of Admiralty House found in Alabama flea market" etc.
Here are some quotes from me: " I purchased it for a quarter. It was mixed in with a box of other old photographs. Where it has been for the last 150 years and how it ever got to Alabama is quite unknown. I knew nothing about the building when I saw the photograph, but I recognized it as being of some importance, especially when I saw the faintly penciled identification on the back, which read simply "Admiralty House."
I did a search on the web and, to my delight, the museum was discovered. I saw the posted photographs of the museum had been taken at least twenty years later and knew I had found a treasure."
Since Admiralty House is a national treasure, I think finding an 1860 photograph of it should add to that standing. I think any historical find , no matter how small, is worth a bit of free publicity.
This photograph will give you a view of the building basically when "new, " as I doubt any structural changes had been made in that short of a time. I think to have it is exciting. You might have far more problems going on up there to deal with than a photograph, but it might get you a little atttention.
Anyway, I hope you can at least post the photograph on the web site. If you do manage to get an article done, it would give me a lot of satisfaction to have a copy. Thank you!!
It took about four days to get my package from Alabama to Nova Scotia, which was quicker than I thought. The director of the museum emailed me the day it arrived. He seemed delighted with it. Of course I'd never met him ( goes without saying when I'm in Alabama and he's somewhere in Canada), didn't know anything about him, but after reading the email from him, I can tell one thing for sure: he has historical savey.
He didn't slide the cdv into a poly-photo envelope and file it away in an acid free box . He actually studied it. He showed it around. He had some fun with it. My little cdv ( now his little cdv) made an impression up there. He gets to say " Look what's been given to the museum " and a historical well now soon follows.
One might think: all this over a little photograph? But, one must think like the historian who puts importance on historical things. Just last year the discovery was made of an original portrait of William Shakespeare, and it made the international news.
If a new photograph of Abraham Lincoln were to be added to the less that 100 known, it would also, on our level of American importance, cause a bit of a flurry of excitement. So , the discovery of a 150 year old photograph of an 1840 Halifax house might not make CNN, but it is never the less entitled to its own bit of historical what have you found now?