I got into the antiques and collectibles business to do more than just sell stuff. I’m not even a very good salesman. I like the cash to flow but I’m also very interested in the things I sell. If nothing deeper mattered and I was a good closer I would sell insurance. There’s more money in it. The historian in me analyzes my trade goods as artifacts. Sometimes I get a priceless glimpse into the past.
Last Saturday I bought a book at a local antique shop and put it on eBay. Click here to see. While scanning the photographic pages I detected a distinct slant to the presentation. It’s a WWII era photographic booklet, We Keep e’m Flying. It shows life for the men and women at the Naval Air Technical Training Center, Memphis, Tennessee. The 44 pages are replete with black and white images of the camp and it’s happy, smiling personnel. Besides showing training scenes with guns and airplanes there is a heavy emphasis on recreational activities and social life. You would hardly know there was a war going on.
I’ve handled a number of the yearbooks published for various military aviation training bases. They tell a story of a generation of Americans who took loyalty to their country seriously. The patriotism is openly expressed. The subtext is often more telling. In case you doubt that society has changed since the 1940’s look at books, magazines and films the government published for consumption on the home front. Some call it propaganda some call it public relations but that flavor is present as a matter of intent.
We all know about Rosie the Riveter. She began as wartime propaganda and letter became a feminist folk hero. In this book there are a surprising number of women shown working along side of men, handling mechanics duties and training in the same ways. One wonders if the emphasis was overstated compared to the reality. The summer camp flavor of the piece stands out in contrast to the realities of life in a combat zone.
I recently sold a yearbook for a pilot training base in Kansas. The ranks of photos of eager young cadets showed only Caucasian faces except for one training squadron that was all black. We Keep ’em Flying presents a parade of fresh white faces except for the photo of the base laundry. Here young black women wield irons as they press uniforms. A solitary black male sweeps the floor. It seems a sad note in the cheery picture. It probably went unnoticed in 1945. Now it leaps out and grabs our attention.
I do not mean to be too critical of the people of the time, context matters. After all, out of the same crucible of war and societal upheaval came the Tuskegee Airmen. No reasonable person questions the value of their contribution or denies their sacrifice. Valor has no color or gender.
We all live in the context of our times. What we do today may be judged differently tomorrow. More than ever our lives are recorded for the future to see. When our children look at us smiling back in artificial images will they only see the movie and not get the message?
A collector is motivated by appreciation of his acquisitions to value them for meaning as well as worth. As dealers we tend to think of the bottom line. The artifacts we engage with contribute to our worldview as we examine their place in our culture. To paraphrase a navy recruiting slogan: It’s more than a job, it’s a classroom.