Nails Are Hot, Stamps Are Not: Collectors Go for Clunky, Funky

TALES FROM AFICIONADOS

Keith Maniac would love Raymond Chase.

Maniac was a character in TV's zany "Monty Python" show. In one episode he insisted bricks could be hypnotized. Someone handed him a brick, and Maniac said it was already in a trance. How did he know this? "Well, it isn't moving is it?" he said. "It's completely still."

Enamored of bricks, but not in a trance, Mr. Chase has collected bricks stamped with manufacturers' names, or cities, for more than 24 years. He is one of millions of Americans who love collecting - everything from accounting textbooks to Bibles to nails to feathers to toilet seats to Barbie dolls.

And it's not just collectibles to put on a shelf or in a book. Collectors are decorating their houses with 1960s furniture, 1920 travel posters, or British teapots.

"There's a boom in collecting these days," says Hal Ottaway from Wichita, Kan., who has collected political memorabilia for 40 years. "People have more leisure time, and every town or city has flea markets for collectors. It used to be that collectors' conventions were once a year; now they are every weekend somewhere."

Forget stamps, hubcaps, or commemorative spoons. Many collectors today go for the clunky and funky. "When I first started out people thought I was crazy," Chase says when he found his first brick with a name on it. "But these are the bricks of history."

From the 19th century up to today, stamped bricks have also borne short slogans and symbols as well as the names of cities. "Peekskill No. 1" or "Coffeyville V.B. & T. Co." are typical of the stamped bricks. One brick in Chase's collection warns, "Don't Spit On The Sidewalk."

Chase's 1,600 stamped bricks, found in dumps, along rivers, or pulled from demolished buildings, are now piled neatly in the National Building Museum in Washington, which acquired the collection last year.

Chase still collects bricks, but not as fervently. "I never go by a brick without turning it over," he says. Now living in Oregon, he is one of the founding members of the International Brick Collectors Association, with 800 members.

While most collectors specialize, Herman Abrams of Rahway, N.J., may be one of the few collectors who transformed himself into an mini-archaeologist.

For the last 61 years, Mr. Abrams has collected nearly everything small that has come into his life - including 2,154 mostly miniature bottles, 300 Cracker Jack prizes, 37 turkey wishbones, dozens of miniature baseball bats, every one of his driver's licenses since 1939, hundreds of coffee jars filled with assorted junk and stuff, every pay stub from 40 years as a chemical engineer, and dozens of baskets and carved coconut heads from vacations.

This big collection fills his small house. "I don't drink or smoke, but I love the little bottles. I really enjoy anything miniature," he says. "I have a basket made of several thousand popsicle sticks that took me 13 years to make."

For Jeff Oaks, a mathematics professor at the University of Indianapolis in Indianapolis, nothing is more intriguing than pulling a date nail from an old, abandoned railroad tie. Mr. Oaks has 15,000 of them stuck in pegboard arranged by railroads.

Date nails were driven into railroad ties to record - on the head - the rail company, year driven, type of wood, and wood treatment used. This was done because wood prices soared at the turn of the century, and railroads wanted to know the best wood and treatment for preservation.

After the abbreviation for the railroad company on the head, for example, a 13 means l913, and the A is for Ash, and the Y for creosote.

"There are about 300 serious collectors of date nails in the country," says Oaks, "and there are 200 in the Texas Date Nail Collectors Club who read Nailer News, not a really high-circulation journal."

Oaks pulled the oldest nail that has ever been found, an 1870 nail from a railroad tie in France. "I pulled 825 nails in three and a half days on that trip," he says. "I do this because I'm a closet archaeologist.

"Let's face it, nails are ugly pieces of rusty metal, but beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and I'm more interested in getting information on the use of nails. It's the historical engagement for me."

As a boy he lived near a railroad track and knew about date nails. Oaks is the author of "Date Nails by Railroads," (University of Indianapolis, 1993) which contains information about 230 railroads as well as date nails. The peak years for date nails were the 1920s and '30s. A 1950s nail from the Santa Fe railroad sold for $600 a few years ago.

"I'm not in this for money," Oaks says. "I started collecting in l980, and I thought it would last a few years, but it's still fascinating to me. I have no idea what I will do with the collection, let's say, 15 years from now."

He has plenty of time to nail it down.

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