Exploring Antique Technologies

Exploring Antique Technologies

by Kary Pardy

From the wheel to the iPhone X, the broad term “technology” encompasses each of our inventions and tools. But what happens when we no longer need the technology, when the tool is replaced by something more modern? As with furniture and fine art, there is a collectible market for those discarded technologies. Whether your driving force is nostalgia, aesthetic appreciation, historic curiosity, or profit, there is an antique technology market for you.

Antique technologies mark trends in consumerism, key points in history, and the scope of our ever-expanding world. As we delve deeper into this broad category, it may help to narrow it down a little bit for better understanding. Popularly collected antique technologies fall into the following general categories:

Technology touches every aspect of our daily lives and can be found in everything material. Just as furniture is a type of tool and porcelain developments are based in science, these categories are fluid. However, in a world where antique collecting can be categorized like the specialties of auction appraisers, lets break down what falls under the ever-expanding umbrella (or parasol) of “Antique Technologies.”

Science
As expected from the name, old or outdated scientific instruments fall into this subcategory. These include medical tools and implements used in the study of any of the traditional sciences. The scientific fields have changed with leaps and bounds, making this one of the most dynamic subcategories with some of the strangest items. Scientific instruments were not originally for popular consumption and therefore do not hold the same nostalgia as jukeboxes or Polaroid cameras. Items are weird and weird looking, made even more bizarre because they were often used on people like us or were used to understand the very world we live in today.

Take the tonsil guillotine: hopefully no one you know has encountered one of these in the doctor’s office. That said, it has the mystique of the unknown, the age, and the outdated philosophy behind it to make it interesting, and it’s also misleadingly pleasant looking.

Actually, these tools were used to cup and slice infected tonsils and uvula in the mid-19th century. The creep factor associated with antique medical equipment is part of the appeal for some, while others are drawn to the advances in healing, or the imagination behind crazy quack devices that always lay on the fringes of medical technology. No matter your inclination, you can find strange and wonderful medical technologies at most flea markets and antique stores. Scientific tools hold similar appeal. Heritage Auction offered multiple fine examples in 2017, including the odd and unexpected walking stick microscope, ca. 1920. Other types, such as barometers or beakers, can be found if you have the patience to look. Decorative examples or pieces in pristine condition may come with a hefty price tag as many scientific instruments were utilitarian.

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Travel
Planes, trains, and automobiles! We have always been fascinated with travel, the act and the objects associated with it. Shifting travel technologies had such a strong impact on our world that popular culture closely intertwines historical periods with advances in getting around. From the Age of Sail to the Age of Steam, to the railroads that helped us Manifest Destiny, our view of the past is often colored by how we traveled at any given time. Given this strong connection, it is not surprising that travel technologies are some of the most sought after. Whether you are a maritime or aviation enthusiast, a car collector or a toy train specialist, you can find art, tools, models, or pieces of the technologies themselves circulating around at all collecting levels. From the visually unusual (think a ship’s binnacle, as pictured), to the technologically advanced (a functioning steam engine model), this is a collecting field that could easily transport you to another time.

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Watches and Clocks
Few can argue with the technological precision of a finely made clock, and as such, antique timepieces fall into the classification of antique technologies. Tall case clocks, cuckoo clocks, carriage clocks, mantel clocks, pocket watches, and wrist watches involve intricacies that make them highly collectible, particularly old, handmade examples. The British Museum has gallery space devoted just to clock development through time, from the earliest mechanical clocks of Medieval Europe to modern marvels, showcasing that timekeeping technology offers beauty and historical depth to curious collectors.

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Arms and Armor/Warfare
Are you a military history buff or a fan of the King Arthur legends? Arms and armor technology might be for you. As long as humans have had disagreements, they have employed technology in various ways to solve them. Made for parade and utilitarian purposes, arms and armor developments through the ages chronicle knights to today’s military in their efforts to conquer and keep citizens safe. Purposefully made from the most durable materials, arms and armor examples from even the earliest periods are still on the market today, though collectors do run into authentication issues. In a subcategory fraught with fakes, genuine antique weapons and defensive gear are popular, as are the period articles (military medals, uniforms, camp equipment, etc.) that supported them.

Collector extraordinaire and steel magnate John Woodman Higgins created a medieval-style museum in 1931 to house his impressive arms and armor collection, which is now being cared for by the Worcester Art Museum. He collected arms and armor for its craftsmanship and beauty, equating the artistry of the medieval armorers with the skill required by his employees to craft airplane parts and other steel creations. Arms and armor collecting was a particularly popular pursuit in the early 20th c., likely because it connected new money titans of industry with an older, traditional sense of grandeur.

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Communications, Art, and Entertainment
When thinking of the title of this article and the words “antique technology,” this category was probably the first to come to mind. When new phones seem to come out every few months and leave the old models languishing in our drawers, communication tools are usually the first reference when we think of things that are “outdated.” Similarly, music, art, and entertainment sources are constantly evolving. Do you love photography? Learn the difference between tin types, ambrotypes, and daguerreotypes and choose your favorite subjects. Perhaps you prefer music? Whether a transistor radio, jukebox, or phonograph, this subcategory was made for consumers and is much more accessible than antique science equipment. Conversely, only the best examples in this group will hold their value as investment pieces. Cameras are one such exception; with their intricate mechanics, the right antique cameras can fetch a premium. The Leica M6 is the epitome of a desirable vintage camera, with a high price tag and the craftsmanship to match, this tool is one that will last.

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Tools
The Farm Collector is a magazine specializing in the “Preservation of Vintage Farming Equipment.” One of its most popular features is called “What is it?” and accordingly informs readers about odd and long-lost farming technologies. It is no surprise that a good deal of human inventiveness has been channeled into making our jobs and daily lives easier. Whether vintage farming equipment, antique woodworking tools, old grooming and beauty developments, or textile processing machines, there is likely an antique tool to correspond with every aspect of your daily life or traditional profession. There is also a satisfaction to seeing these outdated tools and imagining the lives of our predecessors, or in rediscovering a tool that presents a handy solution to age-old problems.

If a technology that you love is not included in the above general categories, do not despair. As collectors, by nature we embrace the human capacity for invention and collecting antique technology can be as broad or specific as you hope to make it. Whether for their beauty or their role in history, antique technologies are out there to find and the category is ever expanding. Modern advances continue to make our once-favorite things irrelevant, except to those who treasure the technological timeline of our past. Happy collecting!

Kary Pardy is an antique journalist, appraiser, and flea market hunter and an alumna of Pook & Pook, Inc. and Wooten and Wooten Auctioneers. She has a BA from Hamilton College and a Master’s Degree in Public History from the University of South Carolina. She is also a lover of all things maritime.

Exploring Antique Technologies