Mice? I HATE MICE
“Your offer is absolutely unacceptable!” the women yelled from the top of the stairs. She turned her back to us. We were at the bottom of the stairs. The old man looked at me, then to the box of old papers on the floor between us. I looked away from the women and toward the old man.
“Don’t worry about it.” I said to him. “I’ll put it back”.
“No, no. Leave it. I’ll move it.” he said. He was frail, in his mid seventies and the box weighted forty or fifty pounds. I reached down and picked it up. The dirt on the cardboard box brushed across my jacket as I put it on my shoulder.
“Let’s go.” I said, turning to the door.
Outside, we walked across the yard towards the doorway of a shed attached to the barn. “I don’t know what she wants.” said the man. “She thinks everything is valuable. She never even touched those papers. Why, I’d ah given ‘em to ya. Jesus. Sometimes I don’t figure her”.
“I wouldn’t think she’d care either.” I said. “You never know what someone will say when you want to buy something”.
We approached the shed door. It was a wide doorway on a building connecting the farm house and the barn. The roof was sagging, as was the door frame. Originally one could pass from the house to the barn through this building but the accumulation of household rubbish prevented access from the inside. As I stepped into this entry the women’s voice boomed from the door of the house.
“WHERE YOU GOING WITH THAT!” she demanded.
“WE’RE PUT’EN IT BACK.” yelled the old man. We turned toward her. I kept the box on my shoulder.
“WHAT BACK?” she yelled.
“THEM PAPERS!” he yelled.
“THE ONES YOU WON’T SELL!”
“IN THE SHED?”
“THAT’S WHERE WE GOT ‘EM”.
“THEY WEREN’T IN THE HOUSE?”
“NO! THERE ON THE FLOOR OUT HERE. BOXES OF ‘EM!” The women paused in the doorway then started down the steps and across the yard. Her short fat form bounced her stubby arms at her side and her battle weary dress blew in the spring breeze. She looked like a toad jumping off a toad stool. We watched her approach. “Oh Jesus.” muttered the man. I put the box down on the step.
The women came directly over and we parted at her arrival so she could inspect the box. The box was full of old paper; letters, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers and any other paper detritus a rural Maine farm generates. “That?” she said turning to me. She put her hand into the box and lifted the top layers of paper. “You want to buy that? You’d pay ten dollars for that?”
“That box and any of the others in there you want to sell. There’s eight in there. We counted ‘em. They used ‘em to start the fires”. The women looked at me. Then she stepped from the box into the shed.
“I thought you wanted to buy the books!” she said.
“No. Those are too good for us. They’re very nice books and you have’em fairly priced. A book collector will buy them.” She turned to me in the doorway.
“Those boxes over there?” she said pointing to the mound of old cardboard boxes next to the stacks of old firewood. “You want that”.
“We buy old paper.” I said. “I’ll pay ten dollars each for any of those you want to sell”.
“You said there’s eight?
“We counted eight.” said the old man. “Including this one. We didn’t move ‘em”. The women walked across the dirty shed to the mound of boxes.
“Huh.” she said. “I never looked in those. Just old paper?” she said, tuning back to us. “Well... along as there’s only papers in ‘em, I sell you THOSE. WHY anyone’d want those’s beyond me”. She poked into a box on top of the mound.
“Watch out for the mice.” I said.
“MICE!” she said
“This box was full of ‘em.” said the old man gesturing toward the box between us.
“I HATE MICE! This whole place is full of mice!”
“You want to sell the boxes?” I said taking out my wallet and exposing four twenty dollar bills as fast as I could. The women, seeing this, walked back to me and reached for the money.
“GET those out of here. TAKE the MICE TOO!”. She took the money and stepped out into the yard. I promptly picked up the box, walked to the back of our pick-up truck and put it in. Then I loaded the rest of the boxes while the women watched and the old man pulled them away from the wall of the shed. “MAKE SURE ITS ONLY PAPERS!” the women yelled in at him when I was picking up the second box.
“Only papers.” he muttered to me.
I am a dealer. I specialize in buying and selling rare books called Americana; specifically ephemera. I buy low and I sell high. The above scenario is typical of how I find old paper.
We have now celebrated the centennial of one of the grandest ephemera hunts in the world. In the winter of 1896-97, two English scholars found what they described as “a single small page, measuring less than six inches by four...; a rubbed, tattered, mutilated waif from a rubbish heap”.
The vocabulary of this discovery accommodates the ephemeral theme of my work. Bernard Grenfell and his partner Arthur S. Hunt, Fellows of Oxford University, were digging the house rubbish of ancient Egyptian villages for their precious old papers. In describing the recovery of the mutilated waif, Grenfell parallels their work “to that of gold-mining”. “The gold-miner follows a vein of quartz”, he states, while the digger of old paper he reports, “has to follow a stratum, or vein of.... house-rubbish”. The age of the Grenfell’s house rubbish was 350 AD. His mutilated waif was made of papyrus. It’s language was Greek. It’s content was, Grenfell stated; “the earliest, and far the earliest, record of the words spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ upon earth; the oldest... in which the name of Jesus is written”.
Grenfell continues his narration to offer a remarkable parallel between his work place and mine. He divides the interest in the old paper from Egypt into three periods. The third period begins when he, as a scholar, actually visits the sources of the old paper and finds it himself. That moment, dated by the centennial we celebrated, he calls the beginning of scientific examination of old papers from household rubbish.
Grenfell’s first and second periods describe my realm of ephemera discovery. In the first period, the majority of ephemera is disregarded and “destroyed in undisturbed ignorance”. I recall that era of Americana Ephemera for I found old paper then and tried to sell it. The conditions of the first period is best illustrated by a fellow dealer’s query to me of “What was the best piece of paper you ever sold?”. I reflected for a moment on the treasures I’ve found and said “It was probably something in a box that I didn’t even know was there”. That is the truth. At one time, I could not sell old paper to anyone. No one wanted it. Grenfell notes that in this period, Egyptian papyri was “burned”. So were many of my finds of old paper. It was the easiest way to get rid of it. Usually I just left the old paper in the household rubbish when “considering the wholesale plundering of ... antiquities”.
The second period is distinguished by the emergence of a market for old paper. For papyri, they became “marketable, though ... no one could read them”. This old paper was “uselessly dispersed in paltry private collections, where, when they had gratified a passing curiosity or ministered to a momentary spirit of emulation, they were allowed to gather dust through years of neglect, till at the last, the futile cabinet of curios was dispersed, and its items were lost sight of altogether”. This era brought forth the “freebooting” and “crafty dealer”. This “cloak-and-dagger” character dominates the processing of old paper to furnish a “history of the scufflings of kites and crows... rather... of ghouls”. A better description of my workplace is difficult to find in print. It well defines our current moment of Americana ephemeral study.
I am a ghoul and I am a good one. I find old paper and I sell it. I loot sites. I plunder, destroy and pillage. I cause irreparable loss and mutilation. I consider myself a distinguished member of this “vulgar crowd”. For over forty years I have been doing this and I consider myself very fortunate to find the noun “ghoul” to describe myself.
The movement of Americana ephemera through the market place to the curio cabinets of paltry private collections makes up the majority of my business. This large body of collectors who purchase our rare discoveries is an incessant rabble that I endure daily. The above description of “marketable, though... no one could read them” summarizes my ever refining cynicism toward my clients and their collections of Americana. In fact, it is this cynicism that has brought me to our nation’s scholars. I sense we are at the beginning of the “scientific” examination of Americana ephemera.
At this time, we have passed the apex of the fad of collecting ephemera. I have plundered and sold too many subjects of art and history to NOT understand that markets change. The principal guardian of market change is price. When a subject of collector infatuation becomes too expensive, they stop buying it. Old paper is getting very expensive. Old paper that is source documentation Americana is the most expensive old paper in the marketplace. The collectors can no longer afford it. Further, they cannot understand what it is that they are buying at such a high price; “no one can read them”. I know this because I sell it to them.
In the past decades our sales to university collections, museums and affiliated scholars has grown tremendously. No longer do I have to explain why I catalog formerly disregarded ephemera. The opposite is happening: My new clients are explaining it to me. The purchasing by institutions of our source documents is spreading throughout our nation. These institutional collectors no longer follow established trails but are increasingly dabbling in the imaginative splendor that our finds embrace. Nearly twenty years ago we altered our cataloging to accommodate this creative directive by archivists and scholars. We are now cataloging every single piece of paper we loot from the sites of house rubbish. Do not get me wrong: We always took every piece of paper, stuffing all into garbage bags and dumping them on floor of our barn. Therein we would sort it for rarities and... sell the rest by the bag. No longer do we do this. To accommodate the refreshing quest of the scholar for the better footnote and the proportionally creative actions by archivist to build centers for better source document discovery, we are trying to come to these new collectors. Every piece of paper we find is offered for study.
Although it is still a long path of ghoulish plunder between the stubby women in the battle weary dress and the climate controlled security of a research center, I see a grand opportunity in Americana. The minds, the facilities and the money is there. Scholars need new and fertile grounds to explore. The monoliths of conservancy with their workstations and eminent staffs may easily manage formerly overwhelming mounds of house rubbish. The cost is nominal. Although the price per Americana rarity has been chased upward by paltry private collectors, that is over. This cost now requires a mental conception of the material that evades all but the most educated collector. This same inflation has flushed these materials into sight. The empire of scholarship in our nation may now see historical ephemera, one piece at a time, from a distance. Herein lies the future and its opportunity.
The grand collections and bibliographies of Americana have finally been surpassed. We all already know about those materials. They are all available to all of us at all times. Consequential and romantic as these collections are, they offer little opportunity for the scholar. Further, the challenge to these large collections by the new USERS of Americana ephemera does not allow them to excuse themselves by generalities such as “we have boxes of that stuff in the basement”. A lot of good those boxes are and I , too, have had as many, if not more boxes of the same old paper myself. We have put our boxes out where a student may see them. MORE students are coming to US daily. Yes it is a tedious mound of rubbish to process with our state of the art workstations. But: Is it going to be left to the ghouls within the history of ephemeral study to process it? I am a ghoul and I know better then to pretend to be a professional archivist or historian. I put my hands in boxes filled with mice. I pillage old homes in New England for treasure. I sell it for gold. Will I be the one who realizes the potential of our discoveries. I doubt it. My new clients are smarter then that and their number is grow daily.
I do not expect to find the scholar in the shed of a farm house in rural Maine, bent over a box filled with old paper and mice. I do not expect these students to gather their source documents in garbage bags, throw them into a pickup truck and pedantically offer a petty cash settlement for removal of house rubbish. What I do is an ancient occupation and I love it. My ghoulish expertise of tactics and plundering cannot be matched by many and I do challenge one to try it for personal proof.
I return to Mr. Grenfell who offers the validation and directive we need to join forces and garner a progressive relationship. He bought openly from dealers, particularly the scruffy, provincial “HEY! I FOUND THIS!” set that are the most ghoulish of the ghouls. His procedure was so refined that it merits emulation by scholars today. He would buy in an open scheme where he would not examine what he bought or care who the end institution was that preserved the discoveries. This led to many pieces of old paper being placed in many libraries. He did not have the time in his life to examine all of them. He died before the majority of his finds were read by anyone.
The finest example of this is his purchase of a 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch fragment for the John Rylands Library in Manchester (England). This waif, purchased from a ghoul and gleaned from an “unspecified” site escaped his (or anyone’s) attention for decades. When finally examined by a disciple of Grenfell’s, it was found to be a fragment of a New Testament leaf “not later than A.D. 150”. Again Grenfell’s house rubbish accomplished the impossible by pushing the time gap between the manuscript and the apostolic age to scant a thirty or forty years.
For our consideration today, Grenfell’s creative action of old paper gathering within his lifetime caused him to mingle amongst the ghouls whom he, evidently, understood well. He intuitively sensed that they are the most adept at plundering and... will never leave the scene. Perhaps he even enjoyed the ghouls. While I, as a ghoul, have come forward to extend my hand to the scholar, perhaps the quest for the destiny of Americana ephemera will allow the scholar to join me in the market place. This is as perilous and trying an environment as it’s history demonstrates but it has an equal tradition of it’s own that matches the historic excellence of scholarship. It should be the student of history who would be most able to persevere amongst the freebooters. Between the source and the end user there is no alternative to this day that will flank the crafty ghoul. I ask the scholar to join me in the rubbish heaps of old paper upon our landscape.
“YOU WANT THAT?” they say to me.
“Yes, I do.” I respond and so do my new collectors; our nations scholars.
Baikie, James: A CENTURY OF EXCAVATION IN THE LAND OF THE PHARAOHS. London: Religious Tract Society; 1924.
Deuel, Leo: TESTAMENTS OF TIME. THE SEARCH FOR LOST MANUSCRIPTS AND RECORDS. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 1965.
Grenfell, Bernard P.: “The Oldest Record of Christ’s Life. The First Complete Account of the ‘Saying of Our Lord,’” with and introduction by F. G. Kenyon. McCLURE’S, Vol. IX (1897), pp. 1022-30.
Grenfell, Bernard P., Arthur S. Hunt and D. G. Hogarth, with J. Grafton Milne: FAYUM TOWNS AND THEIR PAPYRI. London: Egypt Exploration Fund; 1900.
: Grenfell, Bernard P: “The Oldest Record of Christ’s Life,” McCLURE’S, Vol. IX (1897), p. 1022.
: Grenfell, B. P. and Hunt, Arthur S.: FAYUM TOWNS AND THEIR PAPYRI. Egypt Exploration Fund, London, 1900., p. 24.
: Grenfell: “The Oldest Record of Christ’s Life”, p. 1022.
: Grenfell and Hunt.: FAYUM TOWNS AND THEIR PAPYRI., p. 17-20.
: Ibid., p. 18.
: Ibid., p. 17-20.
: Baikie, James.: A CENTURY OF EXCAVATION IN THE LAND OF THE PHARAOHS. The Religious Tract Society, London, (1924), p. 10, 13.
: Deuel, Leo: TESTAMENTS OF TIME. THE SEARCH FOR LOST MANUSCRIPTS AND RECORDS., Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1965, p. 114-115.
: Baikie, James.: op cit., p. 9.
: Baikie, James.: Ibid., p. 11.
: Deuel, Leo: op cit., p.346-347.