Junk Collectibles – The Bane of the Antiques Connoisseur

Junk Collectibles - The Bane of the Antiques Connoisseur

One of the reasons I collect antiques is because I love high quality items.  Fine antiques are often made from some of the most durable, beautiful and desirable raw materials known to man.  This not only grants them an unmatched look and feel, but also a far longer useful life than whatever clutter you can buy at Walmart or Amazon.

But I don't want to talk about fine antiques today.  Instead, I want to discuss the other end of the spectrum - the junk collectibles made from the nastiest materials conceivable.  Junk collectibles are the kind of banal stuff you'll find piled knee-deep at almost every flea market, garage sale and swap meet in the country.  And they all have one thing in common.  They are almost always made from one of the unholy trinity of garbage materials: plastic, plywood/chipboard or cardboard.

Of these three undesirable materials, plastic is perhaps the most offensive.  Because it is cheap and versatile, plastic has been gradually repurposed to fill every niche in our lives over the last 50 years.  Whereas during the mid 20th century it was employed with a modicum of aesthetic and engineering care, plastic has since metastasized into a modern-day plague.

This trend has been especially apparent in the junk collectibles segment of the antique market.  A growing influx of collectibles into the marketplace are invariably made of plastic, as items from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s slowly gain the attention of collectors.  For example, innumerable vintage toys, from Legos to action figures to Lite-Brites, were all made of plastic.  Other vintage collectibles as varied as movie memorabilia, wristwatches and kitchenware were also often made from plastic.

Now, you may ask why I hate plastic so much.  The reason is very simple: it doesn't last.  Plastic ages very poorly over time, becoming brittle and often discoloring.  Sunlight and temperature extremes accelerate this process.  Plastic items don't have to be used for very many years before they are covered in chips and cracks, or even deteriorate into a gummy mess.

So if you have an interest in late 20th century junk collectibles, you had better make sure to keep them in strictly climate controlled storage, far from the rays of the hated sun.  And you should definitely handle them as infrequently as possible too.  Most old plastic collectibles are fragile flowers, metaphorically speaking.

In contrast, fine antiques made from comparable organic materials, such as amber, bone, ivory, wood, tortoiseshell or antler, are surprisingly tough.  These kinds of antiques are often 100 to 200 years old, and despite having been dropped, mishandled or neglected for much of their lives, are often still in remarkably good shape.

Sadly, I wish I could restrict my diatribe to only junk collectibles made from plastics.  Alas, cheap composite wood products like plywood, MDF and chipboard have also done their part to contribute to the poor quality of vintage furniture.  Before the 1980s, pretty much all furniture sold was assembled in a factory by skilled craftsmen before being shipped as completed units to furniture stores.

However, it wasn't long before IKEA burst onto the scene with its ubiquitous "flat-pack" or "ready-to-assemble" furniture.  What began as a good idea quickly devolved into a race-to-the-bottom in term of furniture cost, quality and looks.  Self-assemble furniture from the last few decades is yet another junk collectible, ultimately fit for little else than the landfill.

And then we come to the last of the three horsemen of the junk collectibles apocalypse - cardboard.  Cardboard has traditionally been used as a packing or container material.  In many ways, despite the obvious drawbacks of cardboard - fragility, coarseness and a lack of aesthetic appeal - I find it to be the most forgivable of substandard materials.  After all, cardboard rarely pretends to be something that it isn't.

Huge swaths of junk collectibles incorporate cardboard in some way.  Any vintage item described as "new in box" by online sellers is invariably encased in a cheap cardboard sarcophagus.  Other collectibles, like vintage baseball cards, board games and select advertising media, use cardboard in a more central role.

Of course, even when dealing with lower quality materials, a distinction should be made between the better implementation of these materials before the 1970s and the horrifically cheap standards in place today.  Plastics are the best example of this trend.  From the late 19th to the early 20th century, plastics were considered the pinnacle of human scientific achievement.

Because of this, early plastics, like celluloid, Bakelite and Galalith, were judiciously used in some very high value items, where appropriate.  Likewise, plywood might be discreetly deployed as an unseen, purely structural member in a piece of otherwise fine Mid Century furniture.  Even cardboard was generally fabricated to a higher standard before the 1970s, although this material definitely has its limits.

But since the 1970s, cost cutting has emboldened product manufacturers to progressively cheapen products in every dimension possible.  Striving to shave a few pennies off the unit cost of goods eventually led to the pervasive use of cheaper, thinner plastics and cardboards.  Plywood, along with other wood composites, became far more widespread in furniture, as well.  As a result, the last few decades of the 20th century have left us an abominable legacy of junk collectibles.

The really sad thing about all this is that many people under the age of 40 have never experienced high quality consumer goods.  While unfortunate, this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.  Of course, that only makes high quality antiques all the more desirable.  Once you see and touch true quality, you'll never want to go back to using junk goods ever again.


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