In the last chapter of The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien described Bilbo Baggins returning home to the Shire after an absence of more than a year, only to find he had arrived in time to see his possessions being sold at auction because he had been presumed dead. Bilbo buys back most of his property, but one exception is his set of silver spoons. Nevertheless, he soon settles back into his familiar routine of churchwarden pipes and two breakfasts. All the same, he would have liked to have had back those old silver spoons.
In a spiritual context, Bilbo would be told to detach himself from his worldly goods, and in a secular setting, he would be cautioned against hoarding. While some people pride themselves on an annual purge of all the stuff they think they no longer need, others are aware that the future is uncertain. More often than not, someone will jettison something that has not been used for months or years, and not too long afterwards is when it will be needed. True, some can go to extremes, such as the man who is said to have had a shoe box labelled, “Pieces of string too short to use.”
Useless bits of string can safely be thrown away without harming human dignity, what Psalm 8 teaches about man being made a little lower than the angels. Yet, man was also made to live above the level of a beast of burden. Beginning around the eighteenth century the West has had a reverence for utility, so that family, friends, neighbors, and even the state consider themselves competent to decide and decree what another person needs. In a stark utilitarian society, humans would be told they need nothing more than 2000 calories per day, a futon in a boxy apartment building, and the satisfaction of toiling productively for the collective. Workhorse, here is your stall and your feedbag.
When telling a collector of silver spoons, for example, that he really doesn’t need them and should let go of them, what gets forgotten, paradoxically, is the role of memory. Bilbo and other hobbits had a keen sense of the past and of the importance of things for connecting the generations. After all, Tolkien noted Bilbo lending his suit of chain mail to a museum, and it seems too often overlooked that hobbits sustained a museum.
Hobbits can remind humans that it is a seemingly impractical collection of spoons that really makes a house a home. Those spoons might be reminders of vacations taken, or they may call to mind deceased family members who had enjoyed them in ages past. Those spoons are all about life itself.
Humans who champion this sentimental and commemorative importance of old stuff are Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, hosts of a popular television show, American Pickers. Since 2010 their show has chronicled their travels searching for what they call “rusty gold,” well-aged and often everyday items found off the beaten path. For them, looking for antiquated oddities to buy and resell is about more than making a living. It is about parents, grandparents, and children.
In a book related to their television series, American Pickers Guide to Picking, Wolfe and Fritz conclude by noting how their television show has opened up new worlds to parents and children. Parents write to Wolfe and Fritz saying that their children have been exploring the grandparents’ attics and sheds for mundane artifacts. The children learn that, “the real thrill of picking is in the discovery of new ideas and in the connections they make with the people in their family and communities.”
In a companion book, Kid Pickers, Wolfe, as a husband and father, encourages children to find out about family and regional heritage. He advises them to scrounge around not only at home, but also at yard sales and thrift stores. From there, they should visit local historical societies and cemeteries to locate long lost relatives. “Picking,” he concludes, “is all about connecting to the person you are and the people in your life.”
In his own book, How to Pick Vintage Motorcycles, Fritz observed how one generation influences the next. He explained how his parents instilled in him a strong work ethic, so that his desire for “things like motorcycles, guns, and fishing poles” meant that he had to work and save, leading him to shovel snow in the winter and mow lawns in the summer. Before long he developed a sixth sense for finding old oil cans and other apparent junk.
In their crisscrossing of the country, Wolfe and Fritz keep an eye out for all manner of usually knocked-about rarities, from metal Lionel train sets to enameled Exide battery signs, from Excelsior motorcycles to silver spoons made by a colonial craftsman. Along the way they meet an equal number of eccentric characters, such as Ronald Heist, a reclusive salvager in western Pennsylvania who is known as Mole Man. His nickname derives from his sprawling underground structure, dug out by hand himself, where he keeps a vast collection of tin signs and light fixtures, coffee cans and bathroom plungers. As the Pickers put it, “very weird, but in a totally cool way.”
And so the two adventurous American Pickers have met someone like Bilbo Baggins in a hole in the ground, “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,” but a painted warren of rooms and tunnels. Wolfe and Fritz grew up together near Davenport, Iowa, but they acknowledge in their Guide to Picking that “Pennsylvania is better suited to our particular needs.” There they find treasure troves in small towns and on family farms, most of the towns and many of the barns being easily a century older than their Midwestern or Western counterparts.
Just as Bilbo, at age fifty setting out on his first-ever adventure, faced peril from trolls and dragons, so too have the Pickers faced danger, some inhospitable property owners having been ready to unleash snarling dogs on them. It is an attitude going back millennia: Inside the front door of a house in Pompeii is a mosaic of a dog with a chain and a red collar; even now, it is a resonating image, the caption, Cave Canem, not needing much Latin to translate: Beware of Dog. Human nature never changes, and people cherish their stuff and the memories that it holds.