Finding History in Flea Markets


A Japanese Elementary School Geography Textbook from the 1930s

On any given weekend, I could imagine no better way to spend a leisurely afternoon than strolling through a flea market, used book store, or antique store. I am drawn to these places by the same kind of curiosity which probably led me to become a historian – I really enjoy poking around old stuff. Every once in a while, I come across something fascinating. A Japanese student’s geography textbook from the 1930s, with faded scrawls on the back cover; a nineteenth century American map of China; a peacock brooch; old postcards and magazines. All these things are windows into another time. I like the feel of old paper, the sturdier feel and finer workmanship of older jewelry, and above all the feeling that I am tangibly touching another era. And frequently when I come across something I like, I wind up returning home with my wallet lighter, but holding a little piece of history.

I am hardly alone in my hobby. Historians, in particular, seem particularly vulnerable to the temptations of used bookstores and the collecting of works rare and arcane. As far as hobbies and habits go, the trolling of flea markets and antique stores seems harmless enough, and even rather environmentally friendly. After all, better to recycle goods no longer treasured by their previous owners than to cast them into the trash. The only draw-back I’ve encountered so far is caused by my rather peripatetic life style in recent years. I have moved nearly every year during graduate school, and travelled abroad for extended periods of time. Moving can make one curse even one’s most prized possessions. But I doubt that will keep me from meandering around a flea market the next time I have a free afternoon.

One of a series of coal maps of Taiwan a friend acquired for me in Taipei.

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4 Responses to “Finding History in Flea Markets”

  1. Jana Says:

    I have the blessing (and the curse) of having a neighborhood of antique shops within walking distance of my office. They are my favorite way to spend a rainy afternoon!

  2. Justin Bengry Says:

    What a lovely piece. I too have this bug, but it’s amazing what you can find with a little hunting. The danger for me is the internet, where I can search for out-of-print copies of primary sources. To someone who inherited Aunt Helen’s books, it’s just an old book, but for me it might be a one-of-a-kind relic otherwise not even available in North America. Oh bliss! when I find it.

  3. Shellen Xiao Wu Says:

    I’m not a big fan of internet book-hunting. Used bookstores have such a great, distinctive, slight-moldy smell! I also feel like it must be fated when I find something by digging it up out of a pile of stuff. Not the same at all on the internet! Although, I do have to admit that ebay is sometimes strangely addictive.

  4. Justin Bengry Says:

    True, the romance of the hunt is absent on the internet. Still, I feel like a 21st-century super sleuth when I dig up archival materials on ebay. :)

    (But what kind of a hat does a 21st-century super sleuth wear?) :-)

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