The Twenties have arrived. Revisiting the old argument as to whether 2000 was the last year of the 20th century or first year of the 21st century (does anyone care anymore which side won) and attempting to apply it to 2020 vs. 2021 is meaningless. 2020 is the beginning of the Twenties.
For the adult generations of the 20th century, especially collectors, objects made during the Teens, Twenties, and Thirties refer to things made in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. Now, the Teens means the 2010s and the Twenties the 2020s. 1920s replaced the Twenties as the phrase referring to something made or that happened between 1920 and 1929.
Another consequence of the arrival of 2020 is that any date beginning with a “19” seems old, especially to anyone under 30. A person 19 or under reading this column was born in the 21st century. If active memory begins between ages 5 and 7, this person has no memories of the 20th century except for what he/she has read in books or accidentally discovered on the internet.
Since I did not live through a “turn of the century” (1899 to 1900), I was unaware of how much the numerical change of the first two numbers impacted how individuals viewed the previous century. In 1950, the Nineties still meant the 1890s, albeit future generations associated the period with the age before the popularization of the automobile and the advent of flight.
[Author’s Aside: Additional factors such as the Digital Age do contribute to this shifting mindset. However, as a former math major, I understand that numbers rule and the difference between a four-digit number beginning with a 19 versus one with a 20 is impactful. All one needs to do is look at a calendar, the date on an email, or banner of a newspaper to be reminded that the 21st century is now 20 years old and the 20th century is far more distant than close.]
On May 31, 2019, I copied an article by Michael Ruane entitled “18,000 historic posters to go online” that appeared in the “Washington Post.” It focused on the work of Kelly Manno and Amelia Brookins, two young Smithsonian object handlers, involved in photographing the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s poster collection.
“A digital camera peered down from above. And Kelly Manno and Amelia Brookins carefully arranged the old Bella Abzug campaign poster to be photographed.
“Wait. Bell who?
“Neither of the young Smithsonian object handlers knew of the formidable New York feminist and three-term member of the U. S. House of Representatives. Brookins said she had heard of Abzug, who died 21 years ago, for the ‘first time in the poster.’…
“Manno and Brookins, both 26, and colleague Thomas English, 31, have been working since December  in a makeshift photography studio in the museum, cranking out more than 200 digitized images a day…
“Not all the posters seem obscure. ‘It’s always nice when we get to some that we remember from our living history,’ Brookins said.”
Living history is a frightening concept. History no longer is a record of a nation’s past. Instead, it is a chronicle of events that happen during an individual’s lifetime. It begins and ends on two fixed dates. When that individual dies, his/her special history vanishes. Important events are personal and not communal. Instead of a united presentation, history is individualized.
Living history encloses history inside a box with fixed dimensions. In an age when individuals feel much more comfortable inside a neatly and tightly defined box rather than venturing outside it, living history creates a false relevance of what is and is not important.
Living history keeps history narrowly focused. The “Big Picture” is a non-entity. As a historian, I have been concerned for decades that history has become so diversified [or subdivided into specialties] that a sense of how its pieces fit together into a whole has been lost. History is as much a victim of information overload as digital age databases.
Living history has reduced history to an egalitarian level – my history is as important as any other person’s history. Living history is an integral part of the “everyone deserves a trophy” generations. Everyone is a winner. There are no losers. Toss the textbooks out the window and focus solely on one’s own life experiences. Heaven forbid, a person should look at their own life and decide it is irrelevant.
I realize that I digressed into a soap box oratory but offer no apologies for doing so. I am frustrated by the attitude of current generations not wishing to save the past and study its meaning. I learned history in an era when individuals felt learning the lessons of the past provided guidance for interpreting the present and understanding the possibilities of the future.
During the 1960s to early 1980s, I enjoyed a career as a museum professional. A common lament among museum administrators was that their institutions were collection and property rich and financially impoverished. This situation has worsened as the years progressed.
Older collectors are in the same situation. They expected subsequent generations to share a similar passion and interest in the objects they collected. This was true until the mid-1970s when a new wave of collectors turned their collecting to new collecting categories associated with their “living” history and not the history of their parents and ancestors. As a result, older collectors developed collections that were object rich but were/are not financially attractive to newer generations. The prevailing attitude became: “If I did not live with or grow up with it, why should I collect it? It does not mean anything to me.”
During my stint as a museum professional (1966 to 1984), a number of historic sites and outdoor museums attempted to create living history museums by creating displays and events that demonstrated crafts and skills that evoked earlier times. Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village are examples. When I was a kid, a visit to Colonial Williamsburg was an adventure, an opportunity to interact with history on a firsthand basis. In 2020, families are far more likely to vacation at an amusement or theme park rather than an historic site. The Golden Age of historic site visitation is past. Today’s youth want to spend time at places with thrill rides.
In the Twenties (2020s) living in the past is a negative concept. Life is about now and tomorrow. Collecting encourages the collector to save and research the past. In order to do this, the collector is required to become part of the past. Collectors are unable to convey to the public that becoming part of the past is one of the greatest adventures possible.
So much about the past is unknown, albeit most individuals do not think this is true. Discovering lost records and answers to previously unknown questions is an adventure that takes a collector/researcher down myriads of unexplored trails. Collectors are exposed to an extremely broad horizon and hence a greater world view.
Returning to Ms. Manno and Brookins and the Bella Abzug poster, the critical questions are: What did they do when they discovered that they did not know anything about the subject? Did they make a mental note to research Bella Abzug or did they just take a picture of the poster, put it on the finished pile, and pick up another poster to photograph, again most likely that of a person or event about which they knew nothing? I am betting on the latter.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.